1. Pass a law that grants the Federal Communications Comission power to review “public-interest news and commentary” programming for its “stewardship of facts,” regardless of whether the programming is broadcast over the air or transmitted via pay-to-view cable system.
  2. The same legislation would create and fund a new FCC department charged with the following functions:
    1. Publishing new federal standards for television news and commentary, with emphasis on the public correction of non-factual statements made on its broadcasts;
    2. Compiling and publishing regular “Report Cards” for every news and commentary program, and every network or channel that delivers public interest programming (comedy programs would be exempted);
    3. Establishing an appeals and review process for those Report Cards; and
    4. Creating a Factual Accountability Board charged with setting the annual numerical cutoff for each grade — particularly the minimum standard, and the penalties associated with failing to meet it.
  3. Finally, this law would grant the FCC one particular corrective power: The ability to levy progressively stiffer fines against over-the-air networks or cable providers.
    1. For over-the-air broadcasters, the fines would be for programming that fails to meet minimal factual accountability.
    2. For cable providers, the fines would be levied based on each channel it carries that falls short of the federal minimum accountability standard.
  4. The point:
    1. This approach makes no ruling on free speech per se, targeting instead the factual accountability of public-interest programming;
    2. It doesn’t directly regulate content producers, it doesn’t care about “bias,” and it doesn’t penalize opinions. It presumes that opinions based on facts in factual context are no threat to civic life;
    3. It avoids regulating print publications, websites, individual radio stations, social media platforms or podcasts (based on the likely rationale for the FCC claiming authority — the public spectrum transmission of satellite signals — it MIGHT be extended to cover satellite radio); and
    4. It confronts the market-driven incentive to ignore factual accountability. Cable providers carry Fox News Channel, etc., because Fox’s audience makes those providers a profit. If factual inaccuracy has monetary cost — in additional to a societal one — business executives can factor it into their decisions.
  5. The strength of this idea is that it threads the needle on essential 1st Amendment concerns.
    1. We’re all entitled to our opinions, but nowhere does the 1st Amendment state that we’re all entitled a broadcast platform or a lucrative cable TV contract. I’m not scared of opinions that differ from mine — I’m appalled by what unaccountable right-wing propaganda, masquerading as legit news and commentary, has done to this country over the past 24 years.
    2. I also love the idea that the system could create a voluntary rewards system: What high-quality news organization — including those OUTSIDE the newly regulated broadcast/cable industry — wouldn’t want its work graded to prove its reliability? Think of it as a Sanitation Grade A symbol that every qualifying news source would proudly display.
  6. The weaknesses of this idea are numerous:
    1. While it doesn’t specifically attack 1st Amendment freedoms, it opens the door to future abuses based on bad-faith standards designed to create a chilling effect on controversial speech;
    2. It presupposes a formal fact-checking system (based on the codes of conduct of existing fact-checking associations) that does not now exist;
    3. It requires a clear definition of one of the most significant issues in modern propaganda — factual context, i.e. “lies of omission” — and that remains a potentially daunting challenge;
    4. It presupposes federal oversight via a non-partisan board, when the central issue of propaganda itself is hyperpartisanship by a political movement acting in bad faith to deceive the public and hide its agenda.

I’m sure there are other weaknesses that I haven’t considered, and that others will point them out. But in the wake of the events of Jan. 6, 2021, people have asked “What are the solutions?” and this is my suggestion, developed over the past 16 years.

Have at it.

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