As a democracy, the U.S. government guarantees us the right to "free and fair" elections. Ideally, every licensed voter can cast a ballot without fear of harm or reprisal, and all votes are counted. But this certainly isn't all that there is to a free and fair election. Our government, through the unconscionable complacency of the deregulated Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Federal Elections Commission (FEC), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Congress has derailed our right to fair elections well before we pull the curtain to cast our votes. The roles played by broadcasters and political advertisers in the months leading up to the first Tuesday in November are critical to the legitimate execution of our political process. Thanks to the blatant and careless airing of false advertising and broadcaster retreat from journalistic responsibilities, the American people are denied the fundamental democratic principle of free and fair elections. If citizens are fed half-truths and lies, the outcome of the election process certainly cannot be considered fair.
Refusing to intercede as a protectorate of the airwaves, a seemingly powerless FCC has ignored its primary function as the people's advocate within the realm of pubic broadcasting, falling desperately short of its mandated duties. By choosing not to enforce the governmental mandates designed to guide broadcasters while protecting the American people, the FCC's ineptness has afforded a climate of misrepresentation on the airwaves.
All licensed broadcasters must act "in the interest, convenience and necessity" of the American people as outlined by the Commission or risk losing their licenses. (The American people own the airwaves and broadcasters merely lease access, with the FCC standing as the federal governor of such licenses.) By knowingly airing false political advertising and carrying news stories that would not stand up to the litmus test of truth, broadcasters are doing a fundamental disservice to the American people. Although a deregulated FCC washes its hands of responsibility by asserting local communities should be the truth police of the political airwaves, it is ludicrous to put the onus on them. Citizens are not equipped to battle broadcasters, nor can they fully participate in fair elections if what is being conveyed to them by broadcasters is false or misleading. The broadcasters have a duty to question, not simply accept, the information provided to them and the political ads they voluntarily air.
In recent years, broadcasters seem more afraid of politicians blocking access to candidates and stories than the potential threat of a deregulated FCC's censures. Without the story provided by the candidate, the broadcaster risks losing market share and with it advertising revenue. Looking to societal trends rather than delivering what is best for the citizen, broadcasters have swung the content pendulum to the tabloid rather than the informative. We are told about up-dos before issues, erroneous mud slinging rather than policy driven fact. Without the FCC demanding otherwise, broadcasters have little impetus for change. Further, a media focused on staying on the good side of politicians in exchange for access falls prey to the most dangerous of pitfalls -- media manipulation.
The pit-bull watchdog of consumer advertising, the FTC, sits the political advertising dance out because it claims no product is being sold. In the 22 years I've been in marketing, I can't think of a larger, more carefully packaged product being sold to the American people than that of the office of the President of the United States. Campaigns sell personalities and concepts and ideas to a voting American public. Millions of Americans donate money to campaigns that they learn of from broadcasters, making the argument that there's no money in the game baseless. If the FTC would simply extend its non-political advertising regulations to that of political advertising, the face of such communication would be drastically transformed.
Beyond political advertising, TV and radio stations have often forgotten that the higher purpose of broadcast journalism is to factually inform the American people about the political issues facing the country. Broadcasters are advocates of the people, charged with acting in their best interests first and foremost. Reporting on political candidate fashion trends and filling the airwaves with who didn't really call whom a pig or other forms of political saber rattling disguised as fact dangerously erodes a critical bond between broadcaster and audience. Edward R. Morrow, the patriarch of broadcast journalism, once interviewed an empty chair on the news show "See it Now" when Senator Joseph McCarthy refused an invitation to speak on the issues. Willing to ask the tough questions on behalf of the American people, Murrow's actions lead to the eventual demise of the corrupt senator. Mr. Murrow understood the weighty responsibility he had to the American people and acted in our "interest, convenience and necessity."
There's a psychological term when a patient is running from his/her issues called "avoidance." The therapist searches for what it is a patient doesn't want to address rather than simply accept at face value the misdirection. In this campaign cycle, broadcasters often seem more interested in the sensational rather than the substance, not looking to what politicians hoping to distract or so desperate to avoid. It is a broadcaster's responsibility, however, to deliver to the American public the truth in the best way they know as professionals to do. Otherwise, the broadcaster falls victim to masterful media manipulation.
If a candidate would prefer not to speak to the issues, his or her camp can wipe out a day of reporting by falsely attacking a rival. The sensational attack will serve two purposes: 1) it will divert attention from the issues the public deserves to have addressed and 2) once reported, the audience may believe the lie to be true. Broadcast journalists have a responsibility not only for fact, but also for substance. It is to execute blinders on reporting that is devoid of real fact checking. The airwaves aren't meant to be a forum for propaganda, but for honesty. And the big loser is not the unfairly defeated candidate, but the American people.
In the Communications Act of 1934 (as amended by the Telecom Act of 1996), the FCC itself stated that a broadcaster could lose its license if it "has knowingly transmitted false or deceptive signals or communications." (See FCC.gov) The FCC are well aware that licensees are not supposed to propagate misrepresentations, but seems disinterested in pursuing such situations in regards to political reporting or advertising. The FCC is clear that censorship by broadcasters of candidates is forbidden, yet rarely holds the broadcaster responsible for derailing the spread of propaganda.
At one point in media time, there was grave concern about subliminal advertising, or messages covertly planted within advertising unbeknownst to the viewer or listener. The government swiftly outlawed such communication, as such obvious manipulation was most certainly not in the citizens' best interest. At present, there's no need for subliminal political advertising. Thanks to the ineffectiveness of the FCC and FTC, politicians and action groups can spread untruths in full view on news programs and through advertising for all to see without any negative repercussions.
We couldn't have learned this lesson more fully than we did with the now infamous reporting of Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction. The results of such misinformation, widely distributed by a mostly unquestioning media, have been world changing. If we allow the same principles of misdirection to be applied to the race for the most important political office in the world, we risk having the American people make decisions based on airwave truth-lies; statements that are broadcast through formats that we trust to deliver factual information to us.
The deregulation of the FCC, particularly under President Regan in the mid-80s, must shoulder the lion's share of blame when considering the ineptness of today's Commission. Tragically, without federal governance of our airwaves, we create a sieve-like system that gives too many
opportunities for skillful audience manipulation. How does a local community control a national network? It simply cannot. Believing that the communities and its citizens can police airwaves is simply an excuse for inaction, and certainly not in keeping with the wants, needs and desires of the American public.
Experts in marketing and media will attest that we're in the midst of a cycle of media manipulation that surpasses any other time in our country's history. The American people deserve truth on the airwaves, and the FCC should be revoking the licenses of stations that knowingly distribute misinformation. The job of our government and the broadcasters who use public airwaves is to serve its citizens.
With an economy on the brink of a catastrophic meltdown, an unsuspecting nation has seen how much greedy and power hungry mice will play when the cat is non-existent. If the government can learn one regulatory lesson from Wall Street, hopefully it's that a government is supposed to govern. When the FCC, FEC and FTC don't protect the rights of the people, a trusting America will be lied to early and often.
Some related sources:
* 2008 Wikipedia Search: FCC, FTC, Advertising
* The Museum of Broadcast Communication, keyword: "Deregulation"