Fixing America – Idea 20 – Truth/Balance Ratings of News Shows and Commentators

By September 21st, 2020

Blog No. 123
September 22, 2020 

Fixing America – Idea 20 

Reading Time: 10 Minutes
By Mack W. Borgen, Recipient of Eight National Book Awards. For a “cleaner” / non-email presentation of this and my other blogs, essays, and articles, please go to my website at https://www.mackwborgen.com/
Copyright 2020 by Mack W. Borgen. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, except in the case of brief quotations embedded in critical articles or reviews, without prior written permission by the author. 

Introduction

Over the last two years, I have presented ideas for “resetting” and “fixing” America. This blog is the twentieth idea in this “Fixing America” series of articles.

Idea No. 20

-The Truth Problem-

The Need for Truth and Balance Ratings  

For Newspapers, Magazines, Columnists and 

Television and Radio Stations, Shows, Hosts, and Commentators  

Background: Getting accurate information in this 21st Century is challenging. This is especially so in the context of this year’s acrimonious, highly partisan, and fact-challenged national election. Words such as “hoax” and “fake news” have long replaced Rush Limbaugh’s dismissive “drive-by media” chants of the 1990s. Adding insult to logic, even the concept of “alternative facts” has been suggested by some commentators and presidential spokespersons so that individual’s can more easily be persuaded to conveniently mold a challenge, deflect a criticism, or pass off an excuse as an explanation.

Admittedly and regardless of the context, truth can sometimes be elusive. But, in America, finding the truth has become a never-ending task. At times, truth-finding feels more like game of wits and bluster. At times, truth itself is presented as a fungible blob which can be twisted, changed, or worse yet, hidden.

Americans do not deserve this. Even more frightening, our system of governance cannot long survive this.

However, there is good news. This article will outline that one aspect of the “truth problem” which could be readily fixed.

First, allow me to briefly present some background and perspective.

More than 50 years ago, in 1968, the United States implemented a film classification system whereby the Motion Picture Association began rating films based upon their content (G, PG, PG-13, R). Except for the R-rated films, this is not a form of censorship. Instead, the ratings are offered only for advisory use.

And America has become comfortable with rating systems. Especially in our Internet-dominated America, we rate nearly everything. We consult Yelp to find a good handyman, car mechanic, and house painter. Niche.com and greatschools.org offer every multiple comparative criteria for evaluating high schools and colleges, and U.S. News and World Report and Princeton Review present their annual ratings. We read jdpower.com to compare cars. We check with Consumer Reports to get the inside scope on every product in America.

There are also consumer warning labels everywhere. They, too, are intended both to inform and to warn us. Baby bottles, baby cribs, baby strollers come with warning labels. Our food is packaged with ingredient labels measuring product ingredients down to milligrams and Daily Percentages. Sports equipment, camping gear, lawn mowers, and power tools come with informational packets the size of small books. Backyard bar-b-ques and propane tanks have warning labels. Our medicines are delivered with pages of do’s, don’ts, and cautions. In a curious turn of words, there is even a “Harmful-If-Swallowed” choking warning on, of all things, “Lifesavers.”

But when it comes to the media, we are somehow left on our own. The manner in which most American adults “learn” almost everything, is hit-and-miss show. No guidance. No disclosures. No warnings. With newspapers, magazines, television and radio stations and shows, and commentators and writers, we get nothing except community gossip and an occasional Fact-Checker comments. And those are not enough to save America – especially in our read-and-run, hear-and-repeat, he said-she said world.

The problems relating to the American Disinformation Network are the result of at least four, highly inter-related reasons.

First – No Single Source. Up until about four decades ago, most Americans received their news from one of three sources – ABC, NBC, or CBS. Walter Cronkite (Years of New Anchoring: 1962-1981) was for years recognized as the “most trusted man in America,” and he worked amidst a small group of other respected and serious news anchors – names like John Chancellor (1970-1982), Chet Huntly (1956-1970), David Brinkley (1943-1997), Tom Brokaw (1982-2004), Peter Jennings (1983-2005), and Bernard Shaw (1980-2001). Although every American interpreted “the news” in their own manner, at least everyone started from the same place. Everyone heard roughly the same news. Everyone read from roughly the same page. That is no longer the case. Now, “news” is distributed almost willy-nilly through and from hundreds of different sources. We no longer “start from the same place. I can have my facts. You can have yours.

Second – Blending of News and Entertainment. More and more over the recent decades, both television and talk radio sought to blend news with entertainment. Some argue that this coincided with the launch of CNN in 1980, but the more toxic mix of news and entertainment (or “news as entertainment”) was accelerated with the launching of Fox News in 1996 and with the spread and reach of the Internet and other forms of social media.

Third – Glimpsing of the News. With the headline-grabbing, photo-based “journalism” of the Internet and social media, news is more and more the subject of glimpsing rather than study. Intellectually, most Americans know that there is proverbially “more to every story,” but in the rush-madness of the Internet Age, casual listening is followed and conveniently reinforced by the echo chambers of talk radio. Too often, careful reading and thoughtful analysis are now left to nerds, scholars, insiders, and the Bill Moyers/NPR-types. 

Fourth, Proliferation of New Sources. The proliferation of news sources also has changed everything. Most Americans once had a local paper and a few major network stations from which to choose; from which to get their news and information. Now, there are hundreds of television and cable stations. There are endless streams of 24-hour talk radio shows. Unsurprisingly, both newspapers and the dying art of reading the news have lost their hold on many Americans. Thus, as a cause and as a result, these developments reflect the increasingly tribalistic political environmental of America. We are no longer inconvenienced by truth. We are no longer burdened by the need for accuracy. Instead, we can tailor our news sources to those which best most reflect (and reinforce) our beliefs.

But in fairness, there is one more huge problem – whom to believe. There are multiple takes on every issue. The mastery of “spin” is no longer left to the politicians. It has become a skill and tool of newscasters, television, and radio talk show hosts as well.

It is beyond the scope of this article, but this author also believes that the Federal Communication Commission’s 1987 elimination of the “fairness doctrine” contributed to the slanting or narrowing of balanced news reporting. The “fairness doctrine” was in place for almost 40 years after it was first introduced in 1949. It required all broadcasters to present controversial issues of public importance in a manner which was honest, equitable, and balanced. Broadcasters had wide latitude in the application of this fairness doctrine and although (despite common belief to the contrary) the rule did not require “equal time” for opposing positions,  there was still FCC licensing and regulatory pressure to present the news with a certain degree of “fairness.” Note that this did not mean that every angle, every article, and every rumor had to be presented. There was no requirement for any broadcasters to present QAnon’s latest Pizzagate, cannibalistic pedophilia claims or their latest Reptilian, “deep state” absurdities. But there would have been a requirement at least to present, in a “fair” manner, other responsible ideas or interpretations. Many believe that the 1987 elimination of the fairness doctrine by the FCC contributed to the political polarization of the United States.

But even without the reinstatement of the fairness doctrine, there is something that can be done to help Americans more easily determine who to believe and what are the facts. In time, this “something” may greatly assist Americans in making better electoral selections and policy decisions.  This “something” is the establishment of a truth and quality rating system for the media.

At first blush, this may seem challenging and dangerous. However, the American people have a right to know whether they are listening to an entertainer or a news reporter; whether what they are reading or hearing is raw propaganda or hard facts.

Furthermore, such media rating is neither unreasonable nor far-fetched. Americans already know that there is a difference between The New York Times and The National Inquirer; between Time Magazine and Mad Magazine.

Admittedly, the lines are more blurred in the context of television and radio. For example, at times, Rush Limbaugh has himself claimed to be the voice of truth in America. At other times, he has himself claimed to be merely an entertainer. Which is it? NPR puts out it seemingly-fact based stories, but there is no easy way for the average listener to ascertain their truth and accuracy. Some Americans do not believe anything unless it comes from right-biased Fox News or the left-biased MSNBC. But, some form of truth and balance ratings can help serve as a guide. For even in the context of television and radio, there is a difference between Alex Jones and Lester Holt. Fox News deserves credit for its clever “Fair and Balanced” slogan, but this slogan cannot be allowed to mislead the public about Fox News’ bias as presented daily by Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, or Tucker Carlson. And the same is true with respect to the MSNBC voices from “the left.” Truth and balance should not be required, but their absence must be noted. It is time for bias and selective editing to be registered and disclosed.

Idea: Based upon an established set of announced and evenly-applied criteria, an independent body of persons should rate the balance of editorial selection and the factual accuracy of the content of (a) all major newspapers and magazines, (b) all television and radio news or commentary stations and shows, and (c) all commentators and writers. Such guidance ratings should be conspicuously posted (in the corner of each television screen or on the front cover of each magazine and newspaper or, in the case of radio shows, disclosed at the commencement and end of each radio shows) so that the ratings are readily discoverable to the American reading and listening public. Lastly, all such ratings should be periodically reviewed.

Implementation. The implementation of such a truth and balance rating system will be challenging. However, the current absence of such a fact/balance rating system is devastating. The problems of both ignorance and bias have helped to nurture America’s level of angst, anger, and acrimony within America.

The independence of the panel of reviewers must be steadfastly maintained. Just like Consumer Reports, WebMD or Healthgrades physician reviews, U.S.News and World Report’s List of Best Colleges, J.D. Power and Associates car evaluations, Zagat’s restaurant reviews, IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes movie reviews, Expedia’s hotel reviews, and on and on — the ratings, at times, will be imperfect. This author rarely uses the word “absurd.” But it here applies. The Cronkite era is long dead, and now it borders on the absurd that there is no truth and balance rating system with respect to the sources of America’s news and information.

The manner of selection of and appointment to the commission of reviewers deserves serious consideration. However, it can be done. The commissioners must be financially independent of such news and network organizations. They should not have been elected public officials. In addition, it is recommended that they be barred from appearing on any reviewed program or published in any reviewed publication both during one’s tenure on the panel and for a fixed number of years thereafter. Again, the selection process will be challenging. But it can be done. It must be done.

In closing, a reminder: Americans have the right to easily know the relative truth and balance of those persons they read or hear. If a particular newspaper, magazine, network or cable station, or commentator gets a low, poor, 1-star rating, maybe it or they will try harder to present more truth and better balance — and that itself, would be a fine result for all of us.

INVITATION 

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Dead Serious and Lighthearted book cover

See Additional Previously Presented “Fixing America” Ideas

Idea 1 –  Consolidated Interstate Database for Reports of License Suspension or Revocation (Blog 106, Oct. 14, 2019). 
Idea 2 – Term Limits (Blog 106, Oct. 14, 2019).
Idea 3 – The Media – Report Corporate Settlements, Awards and Fines as Percentage of Annual Net Profits (Blog 106, Oct. 14, 2019). 
Idea 4 – Award of Attorneys’ Fess to Winning Party (Blog 107, Oct. 28, 2019).
Idea 5 – Inclusion of Positive Aspects of American Society as a Distinct Part of U.S. History School Curricula (Blog 107, Oct. 28, 2019). 
Idea 6 – Office of International Comparisons (Blog 107, Oct. 28, 2019). 
Idea 7 – The Need for Climate Scientists to Retain Professions for the Development of an Educational Campaign (Blog No. 109, Nov. 26, 2019). 
Idea 8 – Redefining the Concept of “News” The Need for the Regular Infusion of Positive News (Blog No. 109, Nov. 26, 2019). 
Idea 9 – The Necessity of Mandatory Public Service (Blog No. 109, Nov 26, 2019). 
Idea 10 – Cap or Tie Congressional Pay Increases (Blog No. 110, Dec 7, 2019). 
Idea 11 – Scrutinize (and Possibly Eliminate) the Congressional Health Care System (Blog 110, Dec 7, 2019). 
Idea 12 – Eliminate the Congressional Retirement System (Blog 111, Dec 7, 2019). 
Idea 13 – Cease production and eliminate the use of the U.S. penny (Blog 112, Dec 7, 2019).
Idea 14 – Institutionalized Use of U.S. Military Units in Event of Natural Disasters (Blog 113, February 11, 2020). 
Idea 15 – Streamline the Federal and State Penal Codes and Address the Issue of Overcriminalization in American Society (Blog 114, February 25, 2020).
Idea 16 – It’s Time to Reset America (Blog 118, June 30, 2020).
Idea 17 – If They’re Good Enough for Our Capitalism, They’re Good Enough for Our Democracy – Monthly Bonus Payments for Excellence in Citizenship (Blog 119, July 15, 2020).
Idea 18 – Let Us Try – The Simple Utility of Remembering America’s “Good Celebrities” (Blog 120, August 2, 2020).
Idea 19 – – If We Get It Right – The Next “Greatest Generation” (Blog 121, August 18, 2020).
Idea 20 – -The Truth Problem – The Need for Rating Newspapers, Magazines, and Columnists and Television and Radio Stations, Shows and Commentators (Blog 123, September 22, 2020).

The Fancypants Word of the Day

Blandishment (Part of speech: Noun; Origin: Latin) 1) Flattering speech intended to coax or influence; 2) The act of persuasion by means of flattery.
Examples of use in sentences: “The fundraiser organizer used blandishments to convince the donors to pull out their checkbooks.”
“Sometimes, you can get on your boss’s good side with a little blandishment.”
Source and thank to wordgenius.com and Shawna Borgen.

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