“The vice president doesn’t know what branch of the government he’s in. The president doesn’t know what the Constitution is. And the people don’t know what the heck is going on.” ... Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.)
One of the essential factors for any democracy to succeed is the ability of its electorate to stay informed through objective information about issues vital to their personal well-being. This potentiality has been in gradual decline for 25 years in America but can be reversed if our political leaders recommit themselves to putting the country's interest ahead of partisan politics.
Cracks in the pillars supporting our nation's Constitutional foundation first began to appear in the mid-1980's when former Reagan campaign staffer, Mark Fowler began repealing "parts of the Fairness Doctrine" while Chairman of of the Federal Communications Commission. Rules associated with this philosophy had been adopted by the FCC at the onset of the Cold War "red scare" era requiring radio broadcasters to present a poised view of the anti-communist hysteria sweeping the United States at that time. Fowler justified his decision claiming the rules were deterimental to the public interest.
By 2000, the Fairness Doctrine had been totally eliminated by the FCC which declared they would no longer enforce its implied principles since Congress didn't mandate them originally. More significantly, with its elimination was the removal of regulations requiring impartial "presentation of controversial issues of public importance" giving the corporate media a license to use their editorial judgment as a promotional business tool rather than a vehicle for unbiased analysis to inform the public with. In 2003, the FCC continued its assault on free speech by relaxing prohibitions against the number of television ownerships in a market and permitting mergers of television/newspapers into expanded business conglomerates. Currently, it's debating whether to allow teleco/cabal providers of digital content monopolistic control of the broadband market or giving consumers more choices through alternate companies.
The emergence of the FCC the past couple of decades as a dominant player redefining time-honored communication standards is symptomatic of the militant divide plaguing the U.S. today. Its become a tool through which political appointees seek to alter conventional guidelines governing information mediums for the purpose of distributing a subjective ideologic message. Past Commisioners such as Fowler and Michael Powell along with current Chairman Kevin Martin argue these changes are necessary because policies such as the Fairness Doctrine and ownership caps constrain market competition. They believe an unregulated media market, left to it own devices will promote greater diversity allowing for varying expressions of thought.
Have the modifications introduced by these free market proponents really accomplished their intended purpose though ? If you believe the main function of the Fourth Estate is to produce as much profit for investors as possible, you probably agree the new communication business models which have emerged since the revised FCC formulas were introduced have been wholly beneficial to the industry. Commercial media consolidation, product innovation within the software community leading to increased utilization of computer technology and the anticipated removal of limitations on wireless carriers are often cited as prosperous examples.
However, an opposite school of thought claims the consequences have been detrimental because self-regulation has shifted the role of the media from being defenders of the truth to politically correct enterprises concerned only with net earnings. Defenders of a free press admit the mega mergers within commercial media in recent years have inspired more technological advances but limits the public's choice of who provides the information to them. Without a government directive insuring accuracy the industry risks becoming a propaganda machine disseminating dishonest knowledge or discriminating in the types of messages it broadcasts to the public.
"The FCC was created to be responsible directly to Congress. It is charged with regulating communications - radio, tv, wire, satellite, and cable throughout the 50 states. Where is the regulation over all-powerful corporate interests? We need to revisit history and learn from the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. But similar legislation today would require campaign finance reform: that is, a Congress that has not been largely bought by corporate interests."
He recommends the following three steps to the FCC and Congress if they are serious about fulfilling their oversite obligations to the public.
1. Have a hefty fine for any FCC controlled media outlet that spreads inaccurate, incomplete, or misleading information or news.
2. Cancel the Telecommunications Act of 1996: that is, make media conglomerates understand that the FCC will dramatically reduce the number of entities they can own and have in our communities.
3. Call into question why so few corporations should have ownership of television, newspapers, and cable -- all in almost a single market. Additionally, the FCC can use the argument that local public radio serves an important function of letting local communities know immediately of emergency or breaking news stories.
Several weeks ago both the conservative Constitutional scholar Bruce Fein and John Nichols of The Nation Magazine agreed in a roundtable discussion hosted by Bill Moyers Journal the failure of the media to fulfill its traditional watchdog function is one of the main reasons our present Administration has been able to evade responsibility for its unlawful actions the previous six years.
"Let me mention the unspoken branch of government, which is the media," Nichols pleaded. "The fact of the matter is the founders anticipated that presidents would overreach. And they anticipated that at times politics would cause Congress to be a weaker player or a dysfunctional player. But they always assumed that the press would alert the people, that the press would tell the people. And the fact of the matter is our media in the last few years has done an absolutely miserable job of highlighting the constitutional issues that are in play. You know, you can't have torture and extraordinary rendition. You cannot have spying. You cannot have a-- lying to Congress. You cannot have what happened to Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame."
Fein and Nichols concluded the press has not only been negligent in educating the public about Executive abuses but failed abjectly to remind Congress of its role as guardian of the people's interest. The consequence has been to set the stage for an Imperial Presidency long after the current occupants of the White House are gone.
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