Lying on the News: Perfectly Legal

I already knew the bizarre and troubling fact that political advertising is not subject to false advertising law in the US. A new ruling holds that there is no law against lying on the news, either.

On February 14, a Florida Appeals court ruled there is absolutely nothing illegal about lying, concealing or distorting information by a major press organization…The attorneys for Fox, owned by media baron Rupert Murdock, argued the First Amendment gives broadcasters the right to lie or deliberately distort news reports on the public airwaves.

I’m a little curious about this bit, and wondering if anyone can fill me in on what it comes to:

In its six-page written decision, the Court of Appeals held that the Federal Communications Commission position against news distortion is only a “policy,” not a promulgated law, rule, or regulation. Fox aired a report after the ruling saying it was “totally vindicated” by the verdict.

How binding (if at all) is the FCC policy?

Anyway, I find this both fascinating and appalling.

8 thoughts on “Lying on the News: Perfectly Legal

  1. That ruling makes total sense: If Fox couldn’t lie anymore, they’d have to go off the air… I wonder how much they paid to get these judges onto the bench…

  2. I agree with this ruling; it would be nearly impossible to enforce “truthfullness.” Plus, it affirms that the burden is on the viewer to distinguish between good journalism and bad journalism.

    We *are* the ones who should know better and hold organizations– news or otherwise–accountable.

  3. ps. it wouldn’t let me post my comment with my website line filled in…. strange.

  4. I also agree with the ruling. It seems to me obviously careless to move from the fact that lying on the news is bad to the contention that it should be illegal.

  5. I agree that determining truth is difficult, as is proving deliberate deception. But these issues arise for truth in advertising laws as well. Why should the standard be lower for things that really matter? The case at issue is one where there is no doubt that there was deliberate deception. At least in a case like that, surely one can do something?

    RA: posts with urls often get mistakenly branded as spam, so maybe that’s what happened.

  6. Here’s what the linked to article says about the motive:

    The court did not dispute the heart of Akre’s claim, that Fox pressured her to broadcast a false story to protect the broadcaster from having to defend the truth in court, as well as suffer the ire of irate advertisers.

    I don’t get why truth in advertising shouldn’t extend to misinformation given by organizations sponsored by the advertiser. Further, this was about ingredients being put in milk, so the issue is also one of public safety.

    Following Jender, I agree that it would be very hard to enforce truthfulness; speed limits are also extremely hard to enforce (at least on the highways in Texas) and really few are interested in getting the person going a few mph over the limit. But there are importantly egregious violations, and those are acted on.

    All that said, I recommend going to the FCC site and searching under “honesty.” There are some nice results:

    1. from 1962: Congressman Anfuso: “Honesty: Corruption in high places, and low places, too, is
    another way of inducing communism.”

    2. A bit of Texarcana about an aptly named corporation: “after an FCC staff member told Chameleon [Radio Corporation]that it could not build a new tower but could only use an existing tower, Chameleon built a new tower and later represented that it was an existing tower.” Their defense was that they were trying to comply with the regulations.

  7. reel aesthete: there are indeed 2 posts from you in spam. WordPress thinks that your linked to site is some sort of commercial thing, I suspect. That’s a shame, because you have such an interesting site; you might want to think about add it as a signature in the message. You’ll be able to tell if that sends you to spam.

  8. On what grounds could someone distinguish between good journalism and bad journalism? The average citizen has no way of investigating, say, whether there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, or whether MPs are making fraudulent claims on their expenses, or whether there is a huge wave of immigrants drowning the UK, etc.. If we’ve got no way of investigating these things, then we have no way of knowing whether or not we have been lied to. Moreover, what people are told affects what people do, and how they think. It’s hugely irresponsible for a news provider – an institution that purports to be presenting us with the facts – to lie to us. If news providers cannot be trusted to be responsible (seemingly, they can’t), then there should be legislation bringing them into line. I think these points stand despite the possibility that there is no way to present a set of facts which is free from bias (presenting a set of facts from a particular perspective is very different from presenting a set of non-facts), and also despite the fact that it may be hard to police truthfulness and establish where there has been deliberate deception.

    Here’s a real life example that might be helpful. A few years ago, a local paper published a story on its front page, ‘outing’ a local school teacher as a convicted paedophile. That person was hounded out of their job, attacked in their home, subjected to continual abuse and harrassment. It later turned out that the person was entirely innocent.

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