Needed: A 'Factness Doctrine'

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Ever listen to the radio or TV, and some idiot comes on ranting about how adult businesses ruin neighborhoods, overtax police and are dens of drug use and prostitution? You know it's not true ... but nobody's about to give you air time with which to respond to these lies.

Doesn't sound fair, does it? But fairness aside, what about simple truth? When provably inaccurate information is broadcast over the public airwaves – airwaves that supposedly belong to the citizenry and are licensed to broadcasters supposedly contingent on their good behavior – it harms public discourse on these issues, and may lead to hefty jail sentences and fines for adult business owners.

Of course, sex and sex-related businesses are hardly the only things these people lie about. Recently, radio talk-show host Neal Boortz claimed, in discussing the conviction of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby for, among other crimes, perjury, that former President Bill Clinton had been convicted of perjury also. And when a caller attempted to correct Boortz, Boortz insisted on the accuracy of his misstatement.

Now, whether Boortz was deliberately dissembling or simply misremembered his history – Clinton was never even tried for, much less convicted of, perjury – the fact remains that Boortz never corrected himself on-air, and his listeners have been left with the impression that their former president is a convicted felon. Those listeners, in turn, may repeat this bogus "fact" to their friends and associates, creating a ripple effect resulting in a false reality ... all because no procedure exists under which people who make false statements on TV or radio are required to correct those statements.

And please note that it doesn't matter if other "talking heads" on other shows or stations correct Boortz's lie; Boortz's listeners, who likely have faith that Boortz is generally truthful in what he says, may not hear the correction, or at the very least may hear it but assume that the correction is a lie ... because after all, their choice of "talking head" speaks the truth. (Obviously, these listeners could fact-check the statement by going to an unbiased source, but most are unlikely to do so – and besides, shouldn't speaking factually in a pervasive, "hot" medium like radio or TV be the rule rather than the exception?)

But it's the mounting fear among habitual on-air liars such as Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and their ilk which brings us to the recent furor over claims that Democrats in Congress want to bring back the "Fairness Doctrine" ... and which inspired Rep. Mike Pence (R-Corporatocracy) to introduce H.R. 2905, the so-called "Broadcaster Freedom Act of 2007," which Pence has vowed to attach to other legislation if it doesn't pass on its own.

The Act seems simple enough: "Notwithstanding section 303 or any other provision of this Act or any other Act authorizing the [Federal Communications] Commission to prescribe rules, regulations, policies, doctrines, standards, or other requirements, the Commission shall not have the authority to prescribe any rule, regulation, policy, doctrine, standard, or other requirement that has the purpose or effect of reinstating or repromulgating (in whole or in part) the requirement that broadcasters present opposing viewpoints on controversial issues of public importance, commonly referred to as the 'Fairness Doctrine', as repealed in General Fairness Doctrine Obligations of Broadcast Licensees, 50 Fed. Reg. 35418 (1985)."

Many reading this will not remember the Fairness Doctrine, which, according to Wikipedia, "required broadcast licensees to present controversial issues of public importance, and to present such issues in what was deemed an honest, equal and balanced manner."

The idea that the public deserved to hear more than one side of a controversial issue didn't sit well with conservatives, and when Reagan became president, he appointed Mark S. Fowler, a long-time supporter, communications lawyer and former disk jockey, to head the FCC. According to former right-wing propagandist David Brock, now head of Media Matters for America, Fowler set about "pruning, chopping, slashing, eliminating, burying and deep-sixing" the FCC regulations that had held media monopolists in check and had minimized partisanship in public affairs programming, following the program set out by right-wing commentator Edith Efron in her seminal neocon work The News Twisters, the first modern (1971) "analysis" to claim that liberals controlled the major news media and had biased its reportage to the left.

By 1987, thanks to a District of Columbia Appeals Court ruling by Reagan appointees Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia, the Fairness Doctrine was officially dead. Congress quickly tried to restore it, with wide bipartisan support – but not wide enough to overcome Reagan's veto. Since then, proposals for similar legislation were met by veto threats from George H.W. Bush, and once Republicans gained the majority in Congress, talk of a Fairness Doctrine revival ceased until within the past year, conservatives claimed that the Democratic majority had called for its revival.

The most common argument against the Fairness Doctrine is that it would force networks, at their own expense, to provide airtime for "opposing views" on an incredibly wide range of subjects including the Iraq war, immigration, abortion, same-sex marriage and sexually explicit material, to name just a few. Pence went so far as to claim that, "Bringing back the Fairness Doctrine would amount to government control over political views expressed on the public airwaves. It is a dangerous proposal to suggest the government should be in the business of rationing free speech," with a staff writer for Focus on the Family adding that, "Historically, when the Fairness Doctrine was in effect, many stations chose to avoid issues programming altogether." Family Research Council's Tony Perkins stated bluntly, "If the left wants equal time to express its views on the radio or television, they have the liberty to do so by starting their own programs and shows."

The group feeling most threatened by fairness is religious broadcasters, and attorney Jay Sekulow, head of Pat Robertson's American Center for Law & Justice, recently commented on his television and radio shows that his program would not exist if the Fairness Doctrine were in place. That claim has been echoed by dozens of rightwing talk show hosts including the aforementioned national figures Hannity, Limbaugh, Boortz and O'Reilly, plus such familiar names as Laura Ingraham, Michael Medved, Dennis Prager, G. Gordon Liddy, "first son" Michael Reagan and Mark Levin.

But the issue is far from simply one of "free speech." David Brock reports, in his 2004 book The Republican Noise Machine, that "today the top five radio station owners in the country, controlling forty-five powerful radio stations, broadcast 310 hours of nationally syndicated right-wing talk every weekday. Only 5 hours of nonconservative talk are aired nationally on those stations, according to a study by the Senate Democratic Policy Committee," adding, "The liberal FOX News personality Alan Colmes fills 3 of these 5 hours on a new Murdoch-owned radio network." (Oh, the irony!) Brock also notes that just three companies own half the radio stations in the country, and all three are committed to promoting conservative talk.

A frequent listener to several of the right-talkers can't help but be impressed by the singularity of their message on more than two-dozen hot-button issues. Limbaugh inadvertently admitted the day after the conservatives' defeat in the 2006 elections that he had pushed Republican talking points on a daily basis on his widely-syndicated show, but claimed that from then on, "I no longer am going to have to carry water for people who I don't think deserve having their water carried." It took him less than a day to renege on that statement. On the other hand, most of his fellow talkers have never strayed from the Republican National Committee's daily message.

But it's not simply the challenge to rightwing propaganda that has the wingnut-talkers worrying about a new Fairness Doctrine; it's the disruption of the repetition of the message.

As linguist George Lakoff points out in his landmark book Whose Freedom?, humans think with the synapses and neural circuitry of their brains, and that such circuits, "once established, do not change quickly or easily."

"When a word of phrase is repeated over and over for a long period of time, the neural circuits that compute its meaning are activated repeatedly in the brain," Lakoff analyzes. "As the neurons in those circuits fire, the synapses connecting the neurons in the circuits get stronger, and the circuits may eventually become permanent, which happens when you learn the meaning of any word in your fixed vocabulary. Learning a word physically changes your brain, and the meaning of that word becomes physically instantiated in your brain. For example, the word 'freedom,' if repeatedly associated with radical conservative themes, may be learned not with its traditional progressive meaning, but with a radical conservative meaning. 'Freedom' is being redefined brain by brain."

For those old enough to remember school desks made of wood, remember writing your name (or some other words) on them in ballpoint pen, then retracing the letters over and over until a permanent groove had been cut into the wood? Metaphorically, that's exactly what Lakoff is talking about.

It's that loss of repetition that rightwing talkers fear, because it's that repetition that changes listeners' brains into rightwing tools.

Whether it's a legitimate use of the publicly-owned airwaves to brainwash listeners into following, however subconsciously, conservative dictates is conceivably open to debate ... but one change that everyone should (theoretically) be willing to get behind may be able to sidetrack the conservative reprogramming of America. Call it a "Factness Doctrine."

Many readers will recall the claims, repeated many times during the past year, that presidential candidate Barack Obama is a Muslim, and that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had demanded that the government to provide her with a larger airplane than had been used by previous speaker Dennis Hastert to fly her back and forth from Washington to her home district in San Francisco. Both assertions were lies – Obama is a Protestant, and the U.S. military offered Pelosi the upgraded plane for security reasons – but many people continue to believe the "truth" of these lies in large part because the talking heads making those claims have never been required to refute them on-air.

Take, for example, a recent CNN Headline News' Glenn Beck show, where the subject was global warming and specifically Al Gore's award-winning movie An Inconvenient Truth, where guest (and non-scientist) James Taylor claimed that "virtually every significant assertion that Al Gore makes in that movie has been refuted by sound science." Now, that was a lie, pure and simple; none of Gore's movie has been refuted, though there were some minor inaccuracies – but Taylor's lie went out on a national news program, and Beck has never been called to account for failing to correct his guest's lie.

Similarly, when Sean Hannity said of Hillary Clinton on the July 15 edition of "Hannity's America," which was re-aired in November, that "[T]here are still many chapters remaining open from her time at the Rose Law Firm. Take Whitewater and the death of Vince Foster," that was a lie. There is no doubt that Foster committed suicide, and after a six-year, $60 million independent counsel investigation in 2000, it was established that there was insufficient evidence that the Clintons had committed any crimes in connection with the Whitewater controversy. Hence, Hannity's statement was a lie, and chances are he knew it was a lie, but he said it on nationwide cable TV (Fox, of course) anyway. He has never been forced to retract his words.

On the Sept. 9 edition of "Fox News Sunday," Fox News' Washington managing editor Brit Hume asked NPR's Juan Williams, "Who are we fighting there [in Iraq] now, Juan?" then answered his own question: "Al Qaeda in Iraq. They were there before we got there, and they're there now." It is a lie that al Qaeda were in Iraq before the U.S. invasion, but Hume continues to make similar assertions even to today.

While nearly every Fox News Channel show contains some lie, innuendo or smear about Democrats and progressive leaders and organizations, Hannity's daily (with Colmes) and weekly shows and Bill O'Reilly's "The O'Reilly Factor" are by far the worst – and the lies aren't limited to important personages or subjects. For instance, on the November 19 "O'Reilly Factor," guest Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster and strategist, when asked, "What stops ... an EEOC lawsuit against, you know, public schools ... who demand that kids learn English?", responded, "There's nothing at the moment. And in fact, what starts out as maybe the person doesn't speak English, getting — putting mayonnaise instead of mustard as you requested on your sandwich is one day going to blossom into two air traffic controllers who don't speak great English because political correctness has made us appoint them to those positions. They're going to have two planes crashing in the sky." In fact, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits workplace discrimination, specifically includes an exception for "those certain instances where ... national origin is a bona fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation of that particular business or enterprise." Like, for instance, making sure airliners don't crash into each other. Conway's statement, therefore, was a lie – and, we might note, a lie that bolsters the conservatives' paranoia about immigrants, sure to be a 2008 campaign issue. Will Conway, O'Reilly (or in this case, guest host Laura Ingraham) correct Conway's on-air falsehood? Don't hold your breath.

Hence, the necessity for a "factness doctrine." Very simply, it would require that every time a newscaster, political commentator or one of their interview subjects tells a verifiable lie on a nationally telecast or cablecast news or political commentary program, that that liar is required to admit, on a later edition of that same program, that he/she has lied, and to set the record straight by recounting what was said originally and explaining how those statements differed from the facts.

Obviously, with someone like Hannity or O'Reilly, such corrections of the record could easily take 15-20 minutes or more of their hour-long TV programs, and possibly an hour or so of Hannity's or Limbaugh's three-hour weekday radio programs – but the result hopefully would be that these habitual liars would think twice before spewing forth blatantly incorrect "facts" in an attempt to further their political agendas.

It should be noted that a "factness doctrine" would hardly stop the constant character assassination directed at those who fail to hew to theocon/neocon thinking. For instance, it would not stop Limbaugh from saying, as he once did, that "[t]he last place you want to be is between a liberal who gets herself pregnant and a morning-after pill." Or Ann Coulter from claiming, "if anyone's going to be offended by anyone else's religion, the Jews believe that my savior, a Jew, was a raving lunatic, and you don't see me sniffling and crying." Or Boortz from describing Muslims as "sort of like cockroaches." Or Coulter from saying, "If we took away women's right to vote, we'd never have to worry about another Democrat president." Or O'Reilly ranting in late October, "[John] Edwards may be in the political center if we're all living in Cuba. But with income redistribution and abolition of all anti-terror measures as his major campaign themes, he is not only far left, he's a pinhead."

But since the reactionaries consistently and seamlessly mix falsehoods with their innuendoes, the very least a factness doctrine would accomplish is to throw them off their stride ... sort of like the teacher who snatched your pen away before you could completely carve "Study Hall Sucks!" into your desk.

Well, anyway, we can hope.