In one of my classes this semester, we were told to repurpose a paper we had written in a previous course. The one I selected was a short research paper about the unique divisiveness of climate change in the United States. As someone with no background in science, I felt that I couldn’t reconstruct an entirely new paper about that topic and looked elsewhere for something still pertinent to the framing of climate change.
It doesn’t take much research to know that there is an array of different outlets that Americans turn to for their news, and many of those outlets maintain a distinct narrative. I couldn’t help but wonder: Has the media always looked this way? Given the fiasco of this election cycle and the role news broadcasters play in prioritizing which issues the public is concerned with, I found myself delving into the history of the U.S. media, and one particular aspect of this evolution caught my eye: the rapid polarization of our country’s media.
In 1949, the Federal Communications Commission identified what it perceived as a major flaw in the media landscape of the time: Three networks — ABC, NBC and CBS — held near full control over nationwide broadcasting. In order to prevent bias, which many viewed as an eventual inevitability, the Fairness Doctrine was enacted. It stated that for any contemporary issues of public importance, these networks (and any other licensed broadcasters) must present a balanced perspective to their viewers, addressing both sides of contentious topics.
For the better part of four decades, this policy was crucial in preventing unfettered, uncontested criticism or support of people and ideas in the news and kept the most powerful sources of news in the United States from falling into the problematic biased coverage tendency. Its repeal in 1987 was driven by the rising notion that such a mandate was a violation of free speech and a government infringement on the expression of ideas.
The heart of the debate surrounding the Fairness Doctrine, both up to and since its repeal, has been whether the regulation of licensed broadcasters would “enhance” or “reduce” the public discourse — a struggle between enforced objectivity being in the public interest or a violation of First Amendment rights. The question then remains: Has the degree to which broadcasters inform the U.S. public increased or decreased since the elimination of this doctrine?
The most recent efforts to revive the Fairness Doctrine have — as shown by the individuals who’ve resurfaced it — undoubtedly been a response to the emergence of conservative talk radio in the past two decades. Despite the conspicuousness of this fact, one shouldn’t discard these efforts as partisan squabbling. The Fairness Doctrine was, in its conception and subsequent defenses, a bipartisan effort to prevent licensed broadcasters from propagating and capitalizing on the very narratives that have now reached extensive audiences. Regardless of where one stands on the Fairness Doctrine, it is undeniable that now-prominent broadcasters have upheld a distinct perspective of the country we live in.
Through both observation and research, I’ve become convinced that the direction in which a substantial segment of the modern U.S. media has evolved is detrimental to our civil discourse and, consequently, to the public interest. A once-marginal narrative wherein our country is constantly jeopardized or under attack by a violent religion, criminal migrants, the parasitic poor, delusional environmentalists and a duplicitous left-wing media has become normalized and helped to galvanize an electorate that was justifiably disillusioned (albeit due to different actualities).
The response by the powerful broadcasting conglomerates has not been to defend their legitimacy and denounce views unsupported by fact. They have instead exhibited such stances as a legitimate counterpart to the modern conservative and liberal platforms. At the same time, these multimedia powers have paired an inability to provide much-needed clarity with a dilution of content.
Given the option between a steady flow of curated opinions or pure entertainment, it’s no surprise that many people have chosen the latter. Those who do choose to pursue informative content are now faced with outlets that only seek to further entrench them in whatever partisan leaning they’re already predisposed to. The alignment of once-reliable media sources with political factions and more lucrative entertainment platforms has devastated investigative journalism and helped to halt constructive discourse.
The result has been nuanced issues becoming distinctly two-sided struggles. On one end, the urgency of climate change is simply a part of the “alarmist” narrative. Legislation to keep high-capacity guns out of the hands of unvetted or potentially dangerous individuals is a liberal infringement upon all of our rights. Police brutality and the larger inequities it points to can be unilaterally disproved by the folly of Colin Kaepernick. At the same time, those aligned with an opposing narrative might be convinced that anyone involved in the natural gas industry is evil, anyone who owns a gun is crazy and cops are predominantly malicious. Both perspectives are destructive to the dialogue in this country, yet each has been augmented by media and political frameworks that too often benefit from keeping the truth (which usually falls somewhere in the middle) opaque.
By fortifying two distinct, simplified sides of complex issues, we have become almost willfully ignorant. In a country that has progressed for centuries through discourse and compromise, the solutions to our problems will continue to elude us until a willingness for ideological coexistence and cooperation returns.
Reinvigorating a truly informative media is, in my eyes, the best place to start. Whether such change should be rooted in a revival of investigative journalism, media-ownership caps, more conspicuous public broadcasting, network neutrality or “fairness” legislation of some kind is a discussion for experts to have. But to a novice like myself, one thing couldn’t be clearer: Until those charged with informing us return to valuing objectivity over the narrative they want to convey, we will never mend the ever-widening divide that has gradually suppressed our great country.
David Donnantuono is an LSA junior.