A Free Market Won’t Self-Correct the Disinformation Problem

To stop the spread of lies and conspiracy theories, Congress should start by focusing on the media monopolies that give them an echo chamber.

Against a backdrop of mounting concern over the role Fox News, One America News Network, Newsmax, and other conservative broadcasters play in disseminating disinformation to tens of millions of Americans, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing on Wednesday to shed light on the issue. Sadly, the root causes of the problem remained mostly in the dark.

With one exception, familiar witnesses made familiar talking points. Former CNN host Soledad O’Brien stated that “Congress can’t, and shouldn’t, regulate journalism,” but rather journalism should regulate itself. “Balance does not mean giving a voice to liars,” she told the lawmakers. George Washington University law professor, Jonathan Turley, a favorite of the Republicans, also rejected any role for government in combating media organizations that spread misinformation, repeating the trope that “free speech is the greatest protection against bad speech.”

Underlying these formulations is a conviction, shared by many people across the political spectrum, that the problem of disinformation can be self-correcting if only the government will refrain from censorship and let competition in the “marketplace of ideas” work its magic. It’s an old and noble idea tracing back to the Enlightenment and was central to the Founders’ notion of how a democracy can root out error and act on truth. But to work in practice, it requires, as the Founders also well knew, that the government must not allow the marketplace of ideas to become cornered.

Up until the 1980s, the federal government played a very active role in structuring media markets, particularly in the realm of broadcasting, to ensure that they remained open, competitive, and not monopolized by any one point of view. Still, only one of the witnesses at the hearing, Emily Bell of the Columbia Journalism School, even alluded to the dire consequences of America having almost entirely abandoned these policies.

The example she cited was the Fairness Doctrine. Enacted by the Federal Communications Commission in 1949, the measure expanded pre-existing requirements on broadcasters that they offer a diversity of news sources and opinions. As media historian Victor Pickard has written, its purpose was to uphold Americans’ First Amendment right to not have their own viewpoints and that of their fellow citizens suppressed by giant media companies. But the FCC repealed this doctrine in 1985. Predictably, a new kind of hyper-partisan—and increasingly fact-free news programing—started polluting the airwaves shortly thereafter. If not for the Fairness Doctrine’s repeal, it would have been illegal for broadcasters to let Rush Limbaugh and like-minded ranting ditto heads monopolize their programming.

This policy error is just one of many examples of how a triumph of corporate libertarian ideology has undermined the open marketplace of ideas. As Daniel Hanley has previously detailed for the Monthly, between the 1930s and the 1970s, the FCC exercised its vast statutory authority to contain the growth of media monopolies and prevent them from abusing their power. It did so through such measures as stopping or breaking up big media mergers; by enacting rules that favored local ownership of television and radio stations; and by insuring that station ownership was not limited to just rich white men. The FCC also assured an open marketplace of ideas by preventing cross-ownership of newspapers and broadcasts stations, and, perhaps most importantly, enforcing strict structural separations between networks, broadcasters, and studio production companies (a.k.a., content producers).

But all this began to change in the Reagan years, as part of a broader retreat from enforcement of antitrust and other, traditional American anti-monopoly policies. For example, in the 1980s, the FCC began approving big horizontal and vertical mergers. That explains why giant cable companies like Comcast not only control the wires and signals through which most news travels these days, but also own many, if not most, of the networks and stations that produce the news, whether real or fake. The FCC also repealed rules put in place during the 1970s designed to ensure diversity of ownership and points of view, which explains why giant conglomerates like the Sinclair Broadcast Group are able to buy out a huge swath of locally-owned radio and television stations, as well as newspapers, and convert them into stripped down echo chambers promoting pre-canned conservative ideology. In the resulting news deserts, extremism delivered through social media filter bubbles—also controlled by giant, manipulative monopolies like Google and Facebook—increasingly fills the void.

Indeed, the FCC has even retreated from enforcement of rules designed to make sure that television and radio stations don’t spread disinformation by selling their editorial content to the highest bidder. These rules were originally put in place to prevent record companies from using “payola” to buy radio airtime but came to apply to all broadcast media. They did so by requiring broadcasters to disclose any “pay to play” arrangement they struck with corporate sponsors. For decades now, however, the FCC has barely enforced such laws, which, as Ray Garcia details in a forthcoming study for the Center for Journalism and Liberty, is bringing about predictable distortions in news coverage. Last May, for example, Amazon, faced with criticism over the high number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in its warehouses, had its public relations team prepare what looked like news stories extolling the company’s commitment to worker safety. TV stations from Palm Springs, California, to Miami, Florida, promoted the PR package without disclosing that the tech behemoth itself supplied it.

After last month’s Capitol attack, taking on the machines of disinformation is smart, necessary, and politically viable. Democrats are right to target the talking heads of Trump TV and radio. But to really address the problem, they will have to go bigger and deeper. They will have to reverse America’s decades-long retreat, in which both parties have participated, from the government measures necessary to ensure the truly free and competitive media markets needed to make democracy work.

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Eric Cortellessa

Eric Cortellessa is the Investigative Editor of the Washington Monthly.

Phillip Longman

Phillip Longman is a senior editor at the Washington Monthly and policy director at the Open Markets Institute.