In a recent post, Lane Wallace discusses the pros and cons of a proposed amendment to Canada’s Broadcasting Act of 1986 which would allow broadcasters more leeway to broadcast false or misleading news. As you might imagine, that has generated some controversy, with free speech advocates saying the current law is too restrictive while others were concerned that the modifications would lead to a more toxic (and perhaps less accurate) American-style news environment.
Basically, the issue boiled down to whether or not people felt that TV and radio broadcasters had the same right to free speech as individuals. Because of their access to the public airwaves and the incredible power associated with holding a broadcast license, the CRTC (the equivalent to America’s FCC) determined that licence holders must be held to different standards and withdrew the proposed amendment,
Ms. Wallace wonders why we don’t have something similar in the U.S.:
Is it unacceptable censorship to require someone to be basically honest in what they broadcast as “news” — and which we are more likely to accept as truth, because it comes from a serious and authoritative-sounding news anchor?
We prohibit people from lying in court, because the consequences of those lies are serious. That’s a form of censorship of free speech, but one we accept quite willingly. And while the consequences of what we hear on television and radio are not as instantly severe as in a court case, one could argue that the damage widely-disseminated false information does to the goal of a well-informed public and a working, thriving democracy is significant, as well.
One could counter that it is up to the individual to pick and choose their own news sources (something I have also discussed in the past) but she points out that:
In theory, we could all fact-check everything we hear on the TV or radio, of course. But few people have the time to do that, even if they had the contacts or resources.
Regulating U.S. broadcasters in such a manner would no doubt raise cries against the “nanny state” from many circles but I suspect that these same folks are the ones that have raised obfuscation to a high art. In the long run, failing to hold news agencies responsible for their content does more harm to our society than good.