- Incendiary, sensationalist media has eroded public trust in the news to historic lows.
- Media companies steer their coverage to the extreme ends of issues to make more money.
- Establishing a new Fairness Doctrine would go a long way towards eliminating partisan bias in news.
- Andrew Yang is an entrepreneur, political leader, and Founder of the Forward Party.
- Phil Shawe is the Co-Founder, President and CEO of TransPerfect.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
Our society trusts banks to fulfill their function of securely storing an individual’s money so that they can retrieve it at their leisure. Hence the phrase “you can bank on it.”
But it wasn’t always that way. Years of turmoil and financial crises in the early 1900s caused regulators to build unassailable trust in banks because our way of life depended on it. Banks now have to fit strict legal definitions and follow specific regulations when it comes to backing up their operations. If the word “bank” is used to define an entity incorrectly, regulators will quickly step in and shut down its operation.
Imagine what would happen if we treated the word “news” the same way.
What if the entities that provide news were scrutinized for well-sourced and balanced reporting? What if we built incentives designed to provoke more in-depth news coverage? Just like we depend on banks to support our entire financial system, don’t we need news outlets to secure our informational ecosystem?
Trust in the news media is faltering. In recent years, polling has shown that public trust in major media organizations is underwater at 40%, a number that continues trending downward.
This mistrust corresponds with polarization along political lines – people seek out “news” that is already tailored to their views. This model has become so profitable — with mammoth financial incentives distorting news delivery — that the current market may not be able to bring Americans back to a shared sense of reality.
The more incendiary news gets, the more people watch. The more people watch, the more advertisers and cable companies are willing to pay in a vicious cycle that stimulates our sense of outrage and alarm while dividing us against one another.
While the FCC has a policy to prohibit broadcasters from “intentionally distorting” the news, it is toothless in practice, giving networks wide latitude to exaggerate or even flat-out lie to their audiences. Meanwhile the FTC has historically shied away from ruling on misinformation from news outlets, though there have been efforts to challenge that standard in the wake of COVID-19.
We should look to the recent past for solutions to our “news” crisis. Between 1949 and 1987, the FCC had a rule – the Fairness Doctrine – that required broadcasters to present controversial issues in an honest and balanced way. This meant that broadcasters airing commentary on one side of an issue would have to make sure the other view was represented. This instilled resiliency in our political system, as more Americans operated on the same set of facts, leading political polarization to its lowest point throughout the 1970s.
Establishing a new Fairness Doctrine that includes cable news – whether through legislation or executive branch decision-making – would go a long way towards eliminating the partisan bias at leading cable networks. As with any regulation, successful implementation will be an ongoing, collaborative process with all the stakeholders involved – including FCC regulators, media executives, editors, and the hosts of news shows themselves.
Adding to the challenge is that this revived Fairness Doctrine would need to be updated in light of the 24-7 cable news explosion of recent decades and ensure adherence with the First Amendment. But implementation challenges shouldn’t obscure the power of having a new tool that promotes the health of our news ecosystem.
This is no panacea, but when it feels like you live in a different reality depending on whether you’re watching Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC, we should be doing anything we can to restore a semblance of balance to the news.
Additionally, as it does with parental guidelines for programming, the FCC should require more clear labelling of segments as “news” or “opinion.” This would put a dent in the sensationalization of news that rewards conflict and tribal appeals over societally useful information.
Finally, we should be trying to find creative ways to redesign the incentive structures for cable news networks. Right now, the top cable networks like Fox News and CNN make anywhere from $600 million to $1.1 billion in annual advertising revenue on top of over $1 billion in cable licensing fees.
Offering “public interest” tax credits to networks that, for example, forgo advertising to air longer, more substantive segments that are plainly accepted as being in the public interest could lead to more in-depth, fact-based reporting. Those tax credits could offset the standard advertising revenue lost when networks air longer, uninterrupted segments. And any tax revenue lost via such a mechanism would be more than made up for by the benefits of breaking the stranglehold that ratings-driven formatting has on cable news programs.
What’s more, leveraging the tax code to financially incentivize a mixture of formats beyond just the glitzy talking head format we’ve grown accustomed to would cause at least some proportion of cable news programming to resemble the actual conversations that humans have in real life – and hopefully, inject more grace and tolerance into our public discourse.
Unless we incentivize a change to the way we tell news, it appears that we are stuck with this unfortunate reality. As of now, we cannot bank on truth, but we can definitely take untruthfulness to the bank.