I don’t venture off the island too often, but when I do I typically visit friends — people who share my values and think the way I think. That changed recently when I was skiing at the private mountain in Montana where I met a Trump supporter for the very first time — that I know of. What? How could that be? Trump was in office for four years and in the public eye for even longer. How is it possible that I’ve never run into a Trumpster?
My bubble, that’s how. I live on a liberal, progressive island with a well-educated populace that mostly supports Democratic ideals — just as I do. When my new Trump-supporting friend and I were talking about the issues that we as, a nation, have been facing these past few decades, I began thinking about belief systems, wondering how they are formed and what factors influence what we believe and why.
For the past few months, right-wing Americans have been fed the Big Lie that the 2020 presidential election (but not, apparently, the down-ballot election) was fraudulent, that the Democrats cheated — somehow — and stole the election from Donald Trump. That message was relentlessly hammered into conservatives by the then president, by many of his fellow Republicans and by the right-leaning “news” outlets.
This propaganda actually started back in 2015 when then-candidate Trump declared that, if he didn’t win the 2016 election against Hillary Clinton, then it had to be rigged. When he won—at least in the electoral college — by a thin margin, Clinton offered her stunned but gracious congratulations.
If you invited some friends over for a game night and, just as you began to play Monopoly, one of your friends declared, “if I don’t win this game, you’re all cheating,” how would you feel?
In talking with my friend in Montana I realized that, if I’d been watching Fox News, listening to Rush Limbaugh and Info Wars and reading Breitbart, then I would most certainly believe what my friend believes: that the election was stolen and that, in fact, Trump won by a landslide. I’m sure that there would be no doubt in my mind — just as all of the domestic terrorists who attacked the Capitol believed the same thing, way down deep in their hearts. The problem? The problem is that it is not true.
So this begs the question: how can we, as a nation and as a global community, agree on what is, in fact, true? In the United States, we used to have something called the Fairness Doctrine.
The Fairness Doctrine of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was introduced in 1949 and it required that the holders of a broadcast license must present controversial issues of public importance in a manner that was honest (that means true), equitable and balanced. But the FCC eliminated this policy in 1987 under Ronald Regan. Enter Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.
Without the Fairness Doctrine, “news” channels like Fox and similar outlets can pretty much say anything they like and even call it “Fair and Balanced.” And they do. Every day, though much of it is opinion presented as accurate news reporting. News programs like NPR’s All Things Considered and the PBS NewsHour could do the same thing, though NPR and PBS have made a commitment to be both independent and truthful; they have a team of fact-checkers who are also relentless. Mainstream media outlets like ABC and CBS News, for the most part, also strive to provide coverage that is fact-checked and accurate.
Another consequence of the spread of misinformation on FCC license holders is that, once its broadcast, it spreads virally and astoundingly fast on social media and on the internet. Back in 1987, there was no internet, nor could the FCC have possibly imagined its ubiquity and influence just 20 years in the future. Though difficult to measure or quantify, the propagation of lies on the web is profound.
I believe that, if the Fairness Doctrine were to be re-instated, we Americans would be subjected to far less disinformation and far more accurate reporting of the news that’s so important to us as responsible, active citizens of this great country. Though this quote is not directly attributed to Thomas Jefferson, it reflects his views on democracy: “A well-informed electorate is a prerequisite to democracy.”
We simply cannot be a truly well-informed electorate if we are fed disinformation and lies by the media and by our own leaders.
For the past four years, the media have been cast as villains and accused of being “fake.” A return to a world in which broadcast companies were required to operate under the Fairness Doctrine — and could actually face challenges in the courts were they to act outside of accordance with the doctrine — would not only curtail the spread of misinformation but also serve as a catalyst for repairing the reputations of journalists and the news media more broadly.
I encourage you to be active citizens and to contact your senators and representative and ask them to support the reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine. Truth. The future of our country depends on it.
Scott Durkee is a freelance factotum, artist and wine-maker. He lives on Maury Island.