By: Jim McManus
Following the news has become exhausting. We hardly know what to believe anymore. In response, many people now feel the need to curate reality, by pre-selecting news sources on their smartphones and tablet computers.
However, whether it’s in business or politics, the truth matters, and important decisions must rest on facts, data, and reality. Public and private investments in healthcare, transportation, housing, real estate, and education can be placed at risk if misinformation, or disinformation, is allowed to distort decision-making about essential issues.
To take one example: the public transit system in Greater Boston needs urgent, significant, and expensive attention. Only when more credible information about the MBTA is made available to the public and policymakers can we reach meaningful consensus on a sustainable path forward.
Another example illustrates how disinformation can lead to a frivolous waste of time and money. Despite the Trump administration’s claims, there is no credible evidence of voter fraud from the 2016 election. Not one cent of taxpayer money should be spent investigating that bogus claim. To their credit, nearly every state election official in America rejects the president’s charge.
Lately, the American public has been exposed to a bizarre information diet defined more by the standards of reality television and tabloid journalism than by conventional standards of truth, objectivity, thoroughness, and fairness. For the most part, blame rests with marginal media outlets that prize ratings and viewer clicks over credibility.
We did not arrive at this unsettling juncture by accident. So how do we get out of this news Thunderdome, where there doesn’t seem to be boundaries or rules?
Here are a few possible prescriptions for creating an environment that will facilitate a return to reality:
Overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision. Corporations are not people and they should not be able to distort the democratic process by flooding the field with contributions to elected officials who promote distorted or bogus policy-related studies and reports on education, energy, environment and health care. Money is not the mother’s milk of politics. It is the gasoline. Overturning Citizens United and creating a bipartisan campaign funding reform framework would help allow elected officials to focus on fixing important public problems.
Reinstate the Fairness Doctrine. For decades, from 1933 to 1987, the Federal Communications Commission forced broadcasters to present both sides of a public policy issue. In 1987, under former president Reagan, the Fairness Doctrine – considered a regulatory burden by commercial broadcasters – was dropped. Since then, public policy debates have become winner-take-all contests marked by sharp partisan divides. Reviving the Fairness Doctrine — even with the added complexities of online news — would help restore some civility, reason, and balance to public discussion of critical policy disputes such as health care, education, infrastructure, criminal justice, and national security.
Strengthen net neutrality. The FCC needs to stop its seesaw regulatory practices and embrace the principles of equitable and open access to the internet.
Invest in civic education. Earlier this year, in a shocking illustration of civc ignorance, Florida Representative Ted Yoho stated that members of Congress work for the president. When a US representative doesn’t understand that he belongs to a co-equal branch of government, it is time for a Sputnik-level commitment to educating citizens about our government and why it matters.
Reward true political leadership and bipartisan cooperation. There are many examples, still, of Republicans and Democrats working together to resolve intractable policy differences, most recently in addressing the opioid crisis that has ravaged millions across the country. Voters need to support elected officials who demonstrate the capacity for compromise, and vote out those who demonize the other-party members who don’t share their views.
Reality is not a just television genre. It’s the basis for every important economic and political decision we make and it’s worth preserving.
Jim McManus, principal partner at Slowey/McManus Communications, is a professor of law and journalism at Emerson College.