111 510 510 libonline@riphah.edu.pk Contact

Endangered democracy

What’s a democracy to do when lies fly while truth crawls?

We can start by acknowledging that our First Amendment aimed not simply to protect an individual’s right to speak. It ‘was fashioned’ also to serve a vital public function: “to assure unfettered interchange of ideas for the bringing about of political and social changes desired by the people, as clarified in a 1957 Supreme Court ruling.

But we fail in this public purpose if ‘freedom of speech’ gets reduced a right to say whatever we please within a ‘marketplace of ideas’ – a metaphor introducedmore than a century ago by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

At great peril, we become blind to the fact that all markets have rules.

Most of us appreciate rules protecting us against, say, the sale of unsafe drugs. Why wouldn’t we also see that democracy itself – our most cherished national value – requires rules to guard against the spread of dangerous lies?

In the past, rules assuring ‘fair and balanced’ news coverage served us well. In 1949, The Federal Communications Commission introduced the Fairness Doctrine requiring broadcasters to present issues of public importance and from a range of viewpoints. Twenty years later, in its defense, Justice Byron White argued that “the people” have an overriding First Amendment right to “an uninhibited marketplace of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail.”

But, in 1987 the Reagan administration killed the Fairness Doctrine on the grounds that increasingly diverse media assured access to opposing views.

Quickly, though, one-sided, fact-free – but highly profitable – talk radio and television tookoff. Sinclair broadcasting – once dominated by Rush Limbaugh – now reaches about 40 percent of America’s households. Since 2005, its profits have soared almost ninefold. And TV? This year, among those leaning Red, 93 percent cite Fox as their political news source, and among those leaning Blue, 87 to 95 percent cite NPR, New York Times, and MSNBC. Eighty-six percent report getting their news from digital devices. Social media is the main source for almost a quarter; and half report its use “at least sometimes”.

From these sources, Americans typically choose those aligned with their political orientation. Thus, the Court’s premise of an “unfettered interchange of ideas” no longer holds. Most do not hear opposing views from which truth can “ultimately prevail”. Contributing to decline in democratic dialogue, money speaks loudly in today’s media marketplace.

Frances Moore Lappé, "Endangered democracy," The News. 2021-08-11.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political orientation , Political source , Political changes , Democracy , Doctrine , Rush Limbaugh , Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr , New York , MSNBC