How to fix the US News Media Circus

I'm sick of the media - such as Rush Limbaugh - hiding under 1st Amendment protections by claiming that their political punditry is "for entertainment only".

The news media is not an entertainment force. That is not the "press". While parody and satire serve an essential function (the Court Jester principle), and could be considered entertainment, it's only a side-function. The purpose of it is to skewer the government, and keep it on track. To provide accurate information that the populace might not otherwise get.

Today's media has completely stepped outside the bounds of its role. Part of the social contract here is that the media MUST be truthful. It cannot dance across the line of fact vs. fiction.

Why is this distinction important?

Because when people such as Hannity, or Rush Limbaugh side-step slander & libel laws by claiming that their shows are for entertainment purposes only (which I've never actually heard them say on their shows), they are deliberately playing with a loophole we set up via the constitutional right to freedom of speech. Because these people are NOT citizens as far as the constitution is concerned - they are the PRESS. They have more power than individuals, and as such, as in a separate category - even in that original document.

With today's media reaching millions of people instantaneously, they have more power than ever.

I say we should stop this. And we can do it without risking affecting the 1st amendment.

The FCC already mandates that stations report their ident several times an hour, on both television and radio. The FCC should also mandate, that to receive protection from libel & slander lawsuits, media should CLEARLY label whether their shows are true News, or are using the loophole and running under the auspices of Entertainment.

How this should work is simple:
At the start of the show, the host must clearly state that this is for entertainment purposes only, and is not intended to be news or provide any factual content. (We can shorten this over time, once people get the idea - but at some point during the show, we should get a full statement of intent if the content is not intended to be factual. If it's intended to be factual, no warning is necessary).

Throughout the show, along with the station ident, a brief disclaimer should be played. We can do this every advert break.

Pretty quickly, people would get the point. No need to strengthen our libel & slander laws and go down that slippery slope - and it entirely gets around the fairness doctrine argument.

If they want to lie to us over the public airwaves, they need to play by OUR rules. So let's change the rules.

About the author

Simon Cooke is an occasional video game developer, ex-freelance journalist, screenwriter, film-maker, musician, and software engineer in Seattle, WA.

The views posted on this blog are his and his alone, and have no relation to anything he's working on, his employer, or anything else and are not an official statement of any kind by them (and barely even one by him most of the time).

Archived Wordpress comments
jschroedl wrote on Friday, March 27, 2009:

Hear, hear! This is definitely a good proposal IMO.


Roland wrote on Friday, May 1, 2009:

I know this post is old, but I haven’t been to your site for a while and felt like commenting, so…

I’m curious why you think they’re “hiding” behind this supposed 1st Amendment “loophole.” Both the law and precedent have clearly held that when you’re talking about public figures (i.e. politicians), you can say mostly anything you want, even if it’s only partially or marginally true, and there’s not much they can do about it. IIRC, a public figure would have to prove both malicious intent and show damages in order to any kind of actionable case.

And that only covers what they directly say about individuals. Most of what these people do is considered analysis. They read a news item, then give their opinion and analysis of the situation. I fail to see how analysis and opinion can be a lie. It can be incorrect and inaccurate, but not actually a lie.

As for them being the “press,” which somehow gives them power, I think you have it backwards. These people have power because their words are popular and strike a chord with a large number of like-minded individuals. The listeners, viewers and readers give them power. Moreover, the 1st Amendment explicitly forbids the Congress from legislating the abridgment of the press or the speech of individuals. Press? Entertainment? The Constitution makes no distinction and one could just as easily argue that MSNBC’s entire lineup should carry the “Entertainment Purposes Only” tagline as Limbaugh.

In this country, you can say what you like, with the biggest microphone you can manage to get your hands on. Two hundred years of judicial history have given broad leeway. You might have to deal with the financial ramifications of such speech (either good or bad), and the popularity or infamy that your worlds might bring you, but the one thing you should not have to deal with is the government clamping down on you for it. For your political speech. If ever there was a clear protection for speech, it is for political speech that criticizes the government, whether you happen to care for or agree with the message or not.

Simon Cooke wrote on Friday, May 1, 2009:

Roland… re: the 200 year upholding? Not actually the case.

Look up the Espionage Act of 1917, and the Sedition Act of 1918. For at least three of those 200 years, there were limits on the press as to what they could say and do.

We’re also in the situation today where the media is controlled by large congolomerates with their own interests. For example, look at Rupert Murdoch, who owns a HUGE swathe of the press: ; I don’t believe that anyone forsaw the situation where the press would be manipulated on such a grand scale when the laws were put into place.

For example, look at Fox News, who have been caught many times by bloggers manufacturing the news, and trying to manipulate public opinion. This is NOT the role of the press. The role of the press is to spread the truth and to report the facts - not to spread samizdat, sedition and lies.

And no, what these people do isn’t only analysis. They do lie. They present facts as untrue. Mark Levin, for example, rants about Health care all the time, deliberately and entirely misrepresenting the state of the UK’s healthcare system. Hannity was pushing the Tea Parties. And Fox News has and is still being used as a Republican Propoganda organization.

Freedom of the press requires that the press uphold their end of the bargain. My proposed requirement will NOT limit their speech in any way. All they have to do - if they’re not reporting the facts - is state that they’re not reporting facts. As it stands right now, I’ve met way too many people who listen to AM radio talk shows and take what they hear as Gospel.

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