The Truth About Democracy: It’s Only as Reliable as Our News Programming
Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.
The first decade of this new century will be remembered by many as a time when a significant segment of our society became incapable of differentiating news from propaganda. This phenomenon has endangered the very fabric of our democracy. The founding fathers of our country worried incessantly about a misinformed electorate, which led many—most notably, Thomas Jefferson—to advocate for a public education system. He hoped this would serve as a form of insurance policy for our fledgling democracy, whereby the masses could be counted on to formulate rational, well-informed opinions, which would propagate into the public square, and ultimately shape our national legislative agenda.
If only they could see us now—here, in the 21st Century—where a significant percentage of citizens rely on the likes of the Fox News Channel for their news information. I suspect Jefferson would like a chance to revisit and remedy the incongruencies which exist between unrestrained freedom of speech and a viable, sustainable Democracy.
It’s perfectly acceptable for news commentators to lean right or left, and to even articulate and promote their own personal opinions to the masses. Spirited political discourse is essential to the democratic process, because it fosters competition between opposing ideologies in our so-called ‘marketplace of ideas’. When this competition is waged in an honest manner—meaning their opinions are supported by facts—then the different ideologies can be fairly contrasted, and a majority of the public will likely draw rational conclusions.
But what happens when a self-proclaimed ‘news network’ consistently lies to its viewers as a means of promoting its own rigid political ideology? These viewers—whose numbers have proven decisive in elections past—are not exposed to a marketplace of ideas, but propaganda. Lies—being reported as facts—are indeed perilous to our democracy, because they often prohibit the best ideas from becoming policy. A mislead citizen cannot be counted on to participate rationally in the democratic process. Over the last decade, this phenomenon has jeopardized both the national security and the fiscal health of the United States.
University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy (PIPA) conducted a study on public misperceptions, from January 2003 through September of 2003, leading up to and beyond the invasion of Iraq. The study revealed that those who identified Fox News as their primary news source were significantly more likely to have misperceptions (80%), while those who signified NPR or PBS were least likely (23%). 55% of both CNN and NBC viewers held misperceptions, as did 47% of those who relied primarily on print sources.
Shockingly, nearly half of all Fox News viewers incorrectly believed that evidence existed which linked Iraq to Al Qaeda. This helps to explain the grand illusion held by many at the time that Iraq was complicit in the 9-11 attacks. And as one might predict, the study showed a direct correlation between misperceptions and support for the Iraq war. Only 23% of those who held no misperceptions supported the invasion of Iraq, whereas 53% of those who held one misperception supported it, 78% of those with two misperceptions supported it, and 86% of those with three misperceptions supported it. Thus, the most misinformed citizens largely supported the invasion of Iraq, while the best informed citizens opposed it. This misinformation campaign used to sell the war has cost us dearly: thousands of American lives, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, nearly a trillion dollars in U.S. national debt, thereby surpassing the entire expense of Vietnam.
We now find our nation engaged in another major policy debate: how to reform our broken health care system. Fox News commentators have, for months now, been fueling some of the most outlandish lies in an effort to sabotage the President’s plan. The most egregious one being the allegation that the President was proposing ‘death panels’ to kill off our elderly in an effort to reduce health care costs. And, once again, their viewers appeared to swallow these new lies—hook, line, and sinker. The question we must all confront is this: How can our democracy work in an environment where lies—espoused by those entrusted to report news—continue to sway our nation’s course of action on issues as important as these?
I propose we grant the Federal Communications Commission new oversight responsibilities—ones which empower it to investigate the validity of ‘facts’ being reported by news broadcasters. They already police broadcasters for programming obscenities. Give them the authority to review dubious statements made by news personalities—as flagged by viewers and listeners—to render judgment about the truthfulness of these statements, and to force the offending news broadcasters to correct their misinformation during their next broadcast. Could there be a better deterrent against propaganda masquerading as journalism?
Commentators’ opinions—no matter how extreme—should remain immune from oversight. This isn’t about silencing dissenting opinions. But news information being reported as ‘facts’, should in fact be, … well, facts! Our country needs a public, non-partisan news fact-checker more than ever.
Our goal, as a nation, should be to create a healthier and more sustainable democracy. Only when presented with truthful information, can the U.S. electorate be relied upon to make rational choices which serve our nation’s best interests. Considering the dishonest discourse which now dominates our airwaves, is it any wonder our country has lost its way?