(Un)fair and (Un)balanced?

Posted on May 31, 2010. Filed under: Uncategorized |

By: Holly Murphy

Interesting fact: the United States has the strongest free speech protection in the world. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states this position quite clearly. This amendment, along with the rest of the Bill of Rights, was passed in 1791, and we have been debating its efficacy ever since. Although it is most likely true that the free speech component of the First Amendment was originally directed toward the protection of political expression, it has been much more widely interpreted over the intervening years. Today, free speech protection has been extended not only to advertising and public relations, but also to media outlets and broadcast networks alike.

So, if clearly biased programs want to make trademarked claims that they are “Fair and Balanced,” they may have the right to do so, but should they? Lo and behold, these are the issues of concern today.

History/Context

Again, the notion of free speech is a coveted principle ingrained in the American media, and perhaps this gift of burden has spun out of control. This is not a newfound belief. Thus was born independent protection agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to regulate this right. In reference to the media, the FCC serves to promote competition, truthfulness and diversity, while facilitating the transition to digital modes of delivery. Similarly, the FTC supports the promotion of consumer protection and the eradication and prevention of harmfully “anti-competitive” business practices, such as a coercive monopoly. These agencies (namely the FTC) have constructively come into play with issues concerning false advertising. This is why the FTC must take action in reevaluating the truthfulness with Fox News’ trademarked slogan “Fair and Balanced.”

“Fair and Balanced” Trademark

By the network’s own account, Fox News has regularly and consistently used the catchphrase “Fair and Balanced” to endorse FNC’s television programming, despite frequent complaints that claim otherwise. In fact, Fox News has registered the phrase “Fair and Balanced” as their own official trademark for television news and merchandise. While this may be technically legal, it is also quite absurd as it is for 1) not accurate, and 2) unfair—not to mention that it is misleading too. In 2003, Fox News filed suit for trademark infringement against Minnesota Senator Al Franken for the title of his book: Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. The title was clearly a play on words for the FNC slogan, as the book reveals the consistent and frequent biases of Fox News.

The Reality

By any sane, objective measure, the Fox News Channel is far from living up to “fair and balanced” standards. In fact, research and studies of the network’s programming have demonstrated otherwise. During the Bush Administration, for example, former Fox News employees came out and said that the FNC network management instructed line producers and correspondents to structure their coverage of events in a manner that supported and promoted the positions of the Republican Party.

Furthermore, FNC makes zero effort to reach any semblance of balance in conducting diverse interviews. For instance, in 2005, the interview show “Special Report with Brit Hume” was monitored to detect the balance of party representation during a six month period. The study concluded that conservative guests outnumbered progressive guests five to one. A similar study was conducted two years prior and found that conservative guests outnumbered progressive ones 14 to one. The FNC’s news coverage of current events in our world and out country is grossly distorted, and must be monitored under a much more critical eye.

FTC Involvement

One of the provisions of the FTC is to find advertising to be deceptive if a claim made was likely to mislead a reasonable consumer, and if the claim was material. In the case of the Fox News Channel, neutral, nonpartisan network television viewers seeking objective and balanced information, are subject to believe that the FNC is relaying accurate information by reason of the claim that the show is “Fair and Balanced.” And as a neutral participant, why should they have reason to believe otherwise?

According section 5 of the FTC’s policy, a “material” claim is one that involves “information that is important to consumers and likely to affect their choice of a product or service.” What is more material to a viewer’s choice of news coverage than a claim that such coverage is “Fair and Balanced”? It is paramount that the FTC takes these considerations into account when evaluating the candor and efficacy of FNC’s slogan, “Fair and Balanced.”

Solution

To be fair, the Fox News Channel is bound by no law or regulation to deliver the news in a wholly objective manner. In fact, the First Amendment grants the FNC the luxury to present news, commentary, entertainment and any other content in any way it prefers. What Fox News is not free to do is falsely advertise its program in a manner that is blatantly untrue and misleading. In other words, FNC is free to do and say whatever it prefers, so long as it acts with transparency and accurate representation. According to the Supreme Court’s “commercial speech” rulings, the government (and the FTC) are inclined to prohibit any form of advertising that will sooner deceive the public than actually inform it. That is certainly the case of FNC’s use of the slogan “Fair and Balanced.” For these reasons, it is clear that the FTC must intervene in order to secure the public’s right to a “fair and balanced” look of news media outlets. 

False Advertising

Federal Trade Commission

Free Speech

Fair and Balanced

FTC and Fox News

Statistics

FNC Bias

Section 5 of FTC

Anti-Fox News

Transparency

Advertisements

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    This blog explores the political and economic factors involved with The O'Reilly Factor for J412

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