When Lies are Legal
Everyone makes mistakes for time to time but the question is whether those mistakes are acknowledged and corrected when they are challenged. In the past few decades, court and political decisions have eroded our ability to trust what we read, hear, and see from broadcast media outlets here in the United States.
The Fairness doctrine was repealed a piece at a time by the Ronald Reagan FCC commission starting in 1985. When it is discussed these days, it is often confused with the Equal Time requirement for political candidates. What it actually does require is that media outlets using the public airwave must present both sides of controversial issues in an honest and balanced way. The boom in rightwing radio talk shows followed the end of the Fairness Doctrine. There are numerous documented cases of outright lies being told on the right wing radio talk shows with no honest presentation of conflicting views. These “lies” are generally classified as “mistakes” when the truth is brought to light. While the more progressive, or “left wing” pundits, say something incorrect that could be construed as a “lie” when they are called on it, they promptly admit to the error, correct it and apologize. They generally strive to be truthful.
Here in Washington State, a law was passed in 1999 to make it illegal to lie in a political campaign ad. The law was struck down by the Washington State Supreme Court as unconstitutional. The state legislature tried again with a more restrictive law that made it illegal to lie with malicious intent about a political candidate. Once again, the Washington State Supreme Court struck down the law as unconstitutional. I don’t recall any place in the US Constitution which said that it was OK to lie in political campaigns although I know that it is a long standing tradition.
Honesty is very important in human relationships. Honesty is also important in the broadcast and print media. There can be honest disagreements over opinions as to the character of political candidates, the wisdom of decisions made by office holders or the possible future impact of a particular proposed policy. But as Daniel Moynihan once said to a critic, “you are entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts.” When factual matters of record are distorted or falsified by the media, they should be forced to publically correct them. Freedom of speech is one of the most cherished rights in the US. But I do not think that the founding fathers ever thought that it should be applied to outright lies, especially lies that undermine our political process. It is impossible to have an efficient democracy if the citizens cannot trust what the media presents to them.