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Would More Regulation in Journalism Lead to More Truth-Telling?
Written by
State of the Art
August 2011
Written by
State of the Art
August 2011

Sarah Glazer Gets Angry about Mining Devastation and Wonders How to Spread the Word

Last night I saw a documentary that made me really angry about coal mining, just as it was supposed to. The Last Mountain tells the story of how mining companies have been dynamiting off the tops of mountains in West Virginia and how a small community in Appalachia is trying to save what appears to be the last undestroyed mountain in their neighborhood from similar destruction.

The last time I thought about coal mining was in the early 1970s when I worked for the young, environmentally conscious reformers who had swept into the leadership of the United Mine Workers. I wrote a report about mine safety and left that job confident that the new UMW would make the world safer for American miners. But like Rip Van Winkle, I woke up at this film to discover that big mining companies like Massey Energy have been successfully busting unions and closing down unionized mines, as they’ve made a conscious strategy of violating safety regulations to maximize profits.

The result is hundreds of ash ponds containing dangerous heavy metals that are polluting local streams and drinking water, while threatening to breach their New Orleans-style levees. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the environmental lawyer who is one of the heroes of this movie, is shown speaking at protest rallies where he’s heckled by beer-bellied miners as an outsider who is going to kill off their jobs. (Never mind that jobs have been decimated by Massey's highly mechanized form of mining.)

At the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival screening this week, Kennedy was asked how those kinds of opponents could be won over to this fight. To my surprise, he blamed under-regulation of the media, saying “80 percent of Republicans are just Democrats who don’t know what’s going on.”

Their lack of knowledge, he suggested could be corrected by the return of the 1949 Fairness Doctrine. It required holders of broadcast licenses to present controversial issues in a manner that was truthful and balanced and to give equal time to all points of view. Much like the publicly owned resources of clean water and air that are being despoiled by corporations in West Virginia, the public airwaves have come under similar attack in recent years, Kennedy charged.

The doctrine was dissolved under the Reagan Administration in 1987. At the time, the FCC argued that the proliferation of cable stations would give ample opportunity for all opinions to be aired, unlike the days dominated by three TV networks, and raised concerns that the Doctrine violated free speech rights under the First Amendment.

Rush Limbaugh came onto the nation's airwaves the following year, and conservatives have dominated talk radio ever since.

But I have a hard time seeing how you’d enforce this doctrine today when we have hundreds of broadcast-type editorialists not just on TV and radio but on internet podcasts and blogs.

As I said in my last blog, the phone-hacking scandal involving Murdoch’s News of the World has spurred worrisome calls for more regulation of journalism. But it wasn’t regulators who uncovered the extent of the hacking. It was journalists at the competing Guardian newspaper. “We don’t need more controls on journalism. We need more journalism,” observes Jeff Jarvis, director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Then there’s the question of who should do the regulating. Do we really want the government deciding on the methods of journalism and the content of what’s reported? Could it be the impartial regulator, when it’s often the very body that journalists are trying to expose?

If government takes on that role, “The watched become the watchers' watchers,” Jarvis wrote in the Guardian, noting that as potential regulators, the “government has shown itself to be incompetent and mightily conflicted” in the phone-hacking case, judging from the coziness of politicians with the Murdoch journalists under investigation and the British police that are reported to be beneficiaries of corruption.

It’s tempting to believe Kennedy’s argument that Canada has kept out Fox News and Rush Limbaugh because it’s retained its version of the Fairness Doctrine in its broadcasting law, which requires truth-telling and equal time for differing views. Rejoicing after conservative Canadian leader Stephen Harper failed to repeal that law, which, as Kennedy puts it, “forbids lying on broadcast news.” he wrote, “Political dialogue in Canada is marked by civility, modesty, honesty, collegiality, and idealism that have pretty much disappeared on the U.S. airwaves.”

Some Canadians demurred, noting you can get Fox News in Canada; it just depends on the cable package you buy.

Somehow, I think that Canadian modesty and collegiality may be more of a cultural than a legislative characteristic. (Canada has socialized medicine after all.)

In the meantime, I’m happy to rely on “The Daily Show” and the “The Colbert Report” to provide the balance I need.

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