Berkheimer: Fox News violates FCC distortion rule
For The Aspen Times
I can still hear my mother’s voice ringing in my ears from more than 70 years ago. She repeated the message many times throughout my youth, beginning sometime before I entered first grade.
She would say, “Never be a liar and a cheat because then people can’t trust you. The most important thing you have in life is trust in your word. And without trust, you lose respect.”
Of course, back then, she had no knowledge that much of my working life would be based on trust in my words, which has continued into retirement.
Looking back upon the many lessons that came from my mother’s lips, I believe that lesson on cheating, lying, and the importance of trust was her most important.
As a youth, I didn’t always heed those words, and sooner or later suffered the consequences.
And now it looks like Fox News, Rupert Murdoch, Tucker Carson, Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, plus others in the cable channel’s stable of broadcasters are beginning to suffer the consequences of their lies – as a result of the testimony in the $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit brought by Dominion Voting Systems.
The news reports said, “Murdoch admits Fox News knowingly promoted lies.”
Murdoch conceded in his testimony that he had the power to take the election deniers off the air. “I could have, but I didn’t,” he said. He obviously was more concerned about the cable channel’s ratings, greed, and pursuit of power.
In presenting its case, Dominion also subpoenaed and disclosed Fox News internal communications that revealed staff members knew they were lying to their conservative audience in their efforts to maintain higher viewer ratings.
Commentator Katie Phang, a trial lawyer for more than 20 years, observed Fox became “trapped in an ever-worsening spiral of lies of its own creation. Time and time again, Fox allegedly trafficked in lies and falsehoods. And the result just might be the financial death penalty for the network.”
So I am hoping Dominion does not settle for a lesser payment because the company is well on the way toward winning the lawsuit and the entire amount sought.
But the lawsuit also has underscored much more, including the misuse of our public airwaves in spreading the “Big Lie” – claiming that Donald Trump lost the election only because the voting was rigged for President Joe Biden.
To me, that indicates the Federal Communication Commission should have the right to revoke the Fox News broadcasting license.
Over-the-air broadcasts by local TV and radio stations are subject to certain speech restraints, but speech transmitted by cable or satellite TV systems generally is not. The FCC does not regulate online content of those channels, which generally are considered entertainment and opinion channels, rather than news channels.
But it appears to me the operative word in those sentences above is “generally” — because the FCC does impose certain restraints and obligations on broadcasters disseminating what they are claiming to be news. And one of those restraints is “broadcast news distortion.”
The FCC Consumer Guide states that “broadcasters are subject to sanction only if they can be proven to have deliberately distorted a factual news report.”
The Dominion lawsuit has provided that proof.
So there should be no legal ambivalence over the FCC’s regulatory powers in this instance as long as the Fox News channel claims it is disseminating news. And it is an issue that apparently needs a definitive ruling – either by a court or legislation.
At the very least, the FCC should be sending a warning to the Fox News channel that it is placing its license in jeopardy by continuing to broadcast deliberate lies.
And because the FCC is an independent agency overseen by Congress, it appears Congress needs to clarify the FCC’s jurisdiction over purported news broadcasts by cable and satellite channels.
A government has an obligation to its citizens to allow and provide for the dissemination of truth – not lies and distortions. So when the privilege of a government granted license to use public airwaves is abused by lies and distortions, the government is obligated to withdraw that privilege.
It all comes back to trust.
Citizens have a right to expect that they can trust the words of a professed news channel licensed by the government. Also, a government loses trust if it does not enforce restrictions against gross news distortions. And is there any more gross distortion than deliberate lying?
Darrell Berkheimer is a retired California journalist whose career spans nearly 60 years. He filled editor positions with newspapers in Pennsylvania, Utah, Georgia, Texas, and New Mexico. He also is the author of several essays books. Contact him at email@example.com.