In writing our national Constitution, the Founding Fathers created a marvelous document, which has stood the test of time in most areas critical to the health of our nation. However, that document was written in a time when news could travel only at the speed of a horse. The newspapers of those times were primitive, with limited distribution. There was no way that these far-sighted gentlemen could have envisioned news traveling at the speed of an electron, with dissemination reaching billions of people simultaneously. And that is the world that we are living in, for better or worse.
The Federal Communications Commission, an independent agency, was founded in 1934 within the federal government following congressional passage of the Communications Act of 1934 and signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It has as its federally-defined purpose to “make available so far as possible, to all the people of the United States, without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex, rapid, efficient, nationwide, and world-wide wire and radio communication services with adequate facilities at reasonable charges.” Since its inception, the commission has been the subject of political controversy regarding its regulatory limits, pricing, content, communications media ownership and essentially every aspect of its mandate, and such controversy persists. As electronic media grew from radio, to television, to the internet, the mission of the FCC has grown exponentially more complex. The financial power of major media organizations has grown massively, impacting and restricting the regulatory powers of the organization, even while the growth of such power impacts our national dialogue.
The rise of social media has magnified the power of media echo chambers, and currently, 62 percent of American adults receive some or most of their news through social media avenues. Recent publicity of “fake news,” on the internet and television has demonstrated the increasing visibility of such news sites. A recent Buzzfeed analysis revealed that “in the final three months of the U.S. presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook and Google generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News, and others combined.” It is impossible to know to what extent this may have skewed the election, but only the most naïve would deny that influence exists. Unfortunately, fake news sites have only proliferated in the year following the election.
On the ceiling of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., is a quote from Thomas Jefferson: “I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and constitutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind as that becomes more developed, more enlightened. As new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.”
Jefferson was prescient in this as in many other of his beliefs. In a world where news, both real and fake, is disseminated at the speed of light, and where no limits are placed upon the economic motivations of media enterprises by law or even by moral constraint, we face an Orwellian future. When no demands for change are made by a populace too willing to live within discrete opinion silos resistant or even immune to divergent facts, the very future of our nation is at tremendous risk.
So as Jefferson foretold, we must take action to protect the future of our democracy. This should not be a partisan issue, as both liberal and conservative principles are at risk. These necessary changes must happen within the halls of Congress. We cannot afford to await a divine solution.
Bruce M. Becker lives in Spokane.
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