Honesty seems like such a no-brainer of a requirement. But it's caused a great deal of controversy in Canada over the past few weeks--controversy heightened by the upcoming launch of a new, politically conservative Canadian television channel called Sun TV.
A Licensee shall not broadcast ... d) false or misleading news.
At first glance, it seems such an obvious, common-sense requirement that I was a little surprised that the Canadians had felt a need to put it in writing, or that anyone could possibly argue against it. But with a little more thought, I realized how profound the stricture really was. I also began to wonder why we don't have a similar requirement here in the U.S--and how different our public discourse might be if we did.
The controversy over the Canadian rule erupted in January, when the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), Canada's equivalent to our FCC, proposed amending the rule to prohibit only:
...any news that the licensee knows to be false or misleading and that endangers or is likely to endanger the lives, health or safety of the public.
The root of the proposed amendment apparently goes back 10 years to a Canadian Supreme Court ruling that affirmed the free speech right of a Holocaust denier named Ernst Zundel to espouse those views. The Canadian Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Scrutiny of Regulations subsequently asked the CRTC to review its "false and misleading news" prohibition to determine if it violated free-speech guarantees.
The CRTC dragged its feet for 10 years. But then, this January, the proposed amendment was announced. Why the sudden action after 10 years of inaction? That's part of the controversy. The CRTC chairman says they were ordered to to it by the regulatory committee, but one of the committee co-chairmen says that's not true.
The controversy was also heightened by the impending launch of a new, privately-owned Canadian television station called Sun TV, now scheduled to go on-air April 18th. Sun TV is owned by Quebecor, the same company that owns the Toronto Sun tabloid newspaper, which has a reputation as a right-wing publication. The station is being promoted as a feisty, "controversially Canadian, hard-news" television version of the paper (according to Quebecor's president) and an outlet that will "take on mainstream media" (according to its vice president).
Critics accused the CRTC of looking to change the rules to give Sun TV more leeway in what it broadcasts. But both the CRTC and the parliamentary committee deny any correlation between the two events. And it is true that the committee had been requesting a review of the rule for a decade. In any event, a huge public outcry ensued, and the parliamentary committee finally looked into the matter itself and concluded that a broadcast station did not have the same rights and freedoms as an individual and, further, that a broadcasting license was a privilege, not a right. The committee pointed out that stations already had to comply with numerous restrictions and conditions to get and maintain their licenses, including limits on the content of their broadcasts. Consequently, the CRTC withdrew its proposed amendment. Canada will continue to require stations to refrain from broadcasting "false or misleading news."
Or, at least, the rule will remain on the books. Apparently, the CRTC has never actually taken any action against a station pursuant to that rule. One of the arguments for the amendment, in fact, was that the CRTC lacked enforcement capability, and had never enforced the rule anyway. But the CRTC does have the ability to revoke a station's license--which might give a station owner at least a little pause before allowing its on-air talent to present unsupported theories as fact or get too overzealous in their conclusions or spin on the news.
But the question remains ... why don't we have a similar requirement here in the U.S.? Traditionally, both broadcast radio and television and cable television stations have been subject to regulation, including content regulation, by the FCC. Although that regulation originated from the fact that airwaves were extremely limited, and not accessible to everyone, the regulation continued even after the birth and expansion of cable television, because courts recognized that television and radio are "uniquely pervasive" in people's lives, in a way print media are not. Indecent speech is already prohibited on broadcast television and, at least in theory, on cable (although courts' opinions on the best remedies for enforcing that goal seem to vary). Before its repeal in 1987, both broadcast and cable stations were both subject to the "Fairness Doctrine," which required the stations to present a balance of both sides to any controversial issue.
So given that we've long recognized that a broadcaster or cablecaster has power beyond an individual citizen or even print media, and therefore does not warrant quite the same "free speech" or "free press" rights without restriction (as the Canadian parliament just concluded) ... why can't we have a restriction on broadcasting (or cablecasting) false or misleading news?
One reason is probably the same reason the Fairness Doctrine no longer exists. It's laughable now, with the explosion of narrow-interest fringe websites and narrow-audience, right-wing and left-wing cable shows on Fox News and MSNBC, but in the deregulation atmosphere of the 1980s, the FCC's rationale for getting rid of the Fairness Doctrine was twofold: first, that the Fairness Doctrine inhibited the broadcasters' right to free speech, and second, that the free market was a better regulator of news content on television than the government. Specifically, the FCC said that individual media outlets would compete with each other for viewers, and that competition would necessarily involve establishing the accuracy, credibility, reliability and thoroughness of each story ... and that over time, the public would weed out new providers that proved to be inaccurate, unreliable, one-sided, or incredible.
One wonders, really, if the FCC had ever studied human behavior or the desire of people to have their individual points of view validated. Far from "weeding out" providers of one-sided, or even incredible information, we now revel in what New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof once called "The Daily Me"--a selection of news outlets that never ever challenge our particular points of view.
Contrary to the FCC's theory, our particular public seems to reward, rather than punish, outrageous or one-sided news providers. And while that may make each of us feel nice and righteous as we pick and choose our news broadcasters and commentators, one would be hard-pressed to argue that it enhances the quality of our public--or even our personal--discourse. Especially given the questionable "truth" of many of the statements or inferences made on those highly targeted outlets. 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.
But forget about the Fairness Doctrine. Imagine, instead, if all those broadcasters were simply prohibited from broadcasting (or cablecasting) "false or misleading news." 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?
Think about it. 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. What's more, if we really thought everyone had the right to say whatever they wanted, regardless of truth or consequences, we wouldn't prohibit anyone from yelling "fire" in a crowded theatre that wasn't actually on fire. We wouldn't have slander or libel laws. We wouldn't have laws about hate speech. And we'd allow broadcasters and cablecasters to air all words and all images, no matter how indecent, at all times.
Ah. But what if a broadcaster or cablecaster didn't know the information was false? I suppose you could prohibit only knowingly airing false or misleading information. But on the other hand, if a station were at risk for sanction or a license revocation for getting it wrong (even if the FCC rarely enforced the measure), it might motivate reporters and anchors to do a bit more fact checking--and even, perhaps, a bit more research into alternative viewpoints--before seizing on and running with a hot or juicy scoop or angle.
It's odd, really, that the idea of requiring news broadcasters to be fundamentally honest about the information they project across the nation and into our homes sounds radical. Surely we wouldn't argue that we want to be lied to and misled, would we?
I traveled to every country on earth. In some cases, the adventure started before I could get there.
Last summer, my Royal Air Maroc flight from Casablanca landed at Malabo International Airport in Equatorial Guinea, and I completed a 50-year mission: I had officially, and legally, visited every recognized country on earth.
This means 196 countries: the 193 members of the United Nations, plus Taiwan, Vatican City, and Kosovo, which are not members but are, to varying degrees, recognized as independent countries by other international actors.
In five decades of traveling, I’ve crossed countries by rickshaw, pedicab, bus, car, minivan, and bush taxi; a handful by train (Italy, Switzerland, Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, and Greece); two by riverboat (Gabon and Germany); Norway by coastal steamer; Gambia and the Amazonian parts of Peru and Ecuador by motorized canoe; and half of Burma by motor scooter. I rode completely around Jamaica on a motorcycle and Nauru on a bicycle. I’ve also crossed three small countries on foot (Vatican City, San Marino, and Liechtenstein), and parts of others by horse, camel, elephant, llama, and donkey. I confess that I have not visited every one of the 7,107 islands in the Philippine archipelago or most of the more than 17,000 islands constituting Indonesia, but I’ve made my share of risky voyages on the rickety inter-island rustbuckets you read about in the back pages of the Times under headlines like “Ship Sinks in Sulu Sea, 400 Presumed Lost.”
According to Franklin, what mattered in business was humility, restraint, and discipline. But today’s Type-A MBAs would find him qualified for little more than a career in middle management.
When he retired from the printing business at the age of 42, Benjamin Franklin set his sights on becoming what he called a “Man of Leisure.” To modern ears, that title might suggest Franklin aimed to spend his autumn years sleeping in or stopping by the tavern, but to colonial contemporaries, it would have intimated aristocratic pretension. A “Man of Leisure” was typically a member of the landed elite, someone who spent his days fox hunting and affecting boredom. He didn’t have to work for a living, and, frankly, he wouldn’t dream of doing so.
Having worked as a successful shopkeeper with a keen eye for investments, Franklin had earned his leisure, but rather than cultivate the fine arts of indolence, retirement, he said, was “time for doing something useful.” Hence, the many activities of Franklin’s retirement: scientist, statesman, and sage, as well as one-man civic society for the city of Philadelphia. His post-employment accomplishments earned him the sobriquet of “The First American” in his own lifetime, and yet, for succeeding generations, the endeavor that was considered his most “useful” was the working life he left behind when he embarked on a life of leisure.
Climate change means the end of our world, but the beginning of another—one with a new set of species and ecosystems.
A few years ago in a lab in Panama, Klaus Winter tried to conjure the future. A plant physiologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, he planted seedlings of 10 tropical tree species in small, geodesic greenhouses. Some he allowed to grow in the kind of environment they were used to out in the forest, around 79 degrees Fahrenheit. Others, he subjected to uncomfortably high temperatures. Still others, unbearably high temperatures—up to a daily average temperature of 95 degrees and a peak of 102 degrees. That’s about as hot as Earth has ever been.
It’s also the kind of environment tropical trees have a good chance of living in by the end of this century, thanks to climate change. Winter wanted to see how they would do.
Massive hurricanes striking Miami or Houston. Earthquakes leveling Los Angeles or Seattle. Deadly epidemics. Meet the “maximums of maximums” that keep emergency planners up at night.
For years before Hurricane Katrina, storm experts warned that a big hurricane would inundate the Big Easy. Reporters noted that the levees were unstable and could fail. Yet hardly anyone paid attention to these Cassandras until after the levees had broken, the Gulf Coast had been blown to pieces, and New Orleans sat beneath feet of water.
The wall-to-wall coverage afforded to the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina reveals the sway that a deadly act of God or man can hold on people, even 10 years later. But it also raises uncomfortable questions about how effectively the nation is prepared for the next catastrophe, whether that be a hurricane or something else. There are plenty of people warning about the dangers that lie ahead, but that doesn’t mean that the average citizen or most levels of the government are anywhere near ready for them.
The tension between religious liberty and same-sex marriage may eventually come to a head in the courts, but probably not through the Kentucky clerk’s case.
As Rowan County clerk Kim Davis crawls further and further out on a limb, Supreme Court experts agree that she has little chance of prevailing. District Judge David Bunning, on August 12 ordered Davis, in her capacity as county clerk, to issue marriage licenses to all couples who meet the statutory criteria for marriage in Kentucky—a definition that, since the Court’s landmark decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, includes same-sex couples.
Davis has refused, citing “the authority of God.” The U.S. Supreme Court, without comment, denied her emergency request for a stay. This throws the case back to the Sixth Circuit, which will hear the appeal of Judge Bunning’s order. Assuming she loses in the Sixth Circuit—a fairly good assumption—she would then have the alternative of petitioning the Supreme Court to hear her religious freedom claim. The Court will eventually hear a case about religious freedom and same-sex marriage, but I don’t think it will be this one.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
How the Islamic State uses economic persecution as a recruitment tactic
Before Islamic State militants overran her hometown of Mosul in June 2014, Fahima Omar ran a hairdressing salon. But ISIS gunmen made Omar close her business—and lose her only source of income. Salons like hers encouraged “debauchery,” the militants said.
Omar is one of many business owners—male and female—who say ISIS has forced them to shut up shop and lose their livelihoods in the process. The extremist group has also prevented those who refuse to join it from finding jobs, and has imposed heavy taxes on civilians.
“ISIS controls every detail of the economy,” says Abu Mujahed, who fled with his family from ISIS-controlled Deir al-Zor in eastern Syria. “Only their people or those who swear allegiance to them have a good life.” When they took over Deir al-Zor, ISIS gunmen systematically took control of the local economy, looting factories and confiscating properties, says Mujahed. Then they moved in, taking over local business networks.
The past is beautiful until you’re reminded it’s ugly.
Taylor Swift’s music video for “Wildest Dreams” isn’t about the world as it exists; it’s about the world as seen through the filter of nostalgia and the magic of entertainment. In the song, Swift sings that she wants to live on in an ex’s memory as an idealized image of glamour—“standing in a nice dress, staring at the sunset.” In the video, her character, an actress, falls in love with her already-coupled costar, for whom she’ll live on as an idealized image of glamour—standing in a nice dress, staring at a giant fan that’s making the fabric swirl in the wind.
The setting for the most part is Africa, but, again, the video isn’t about Africa as it exists, but as it’s seen through the filter of nostalgia and the magic of entertainment—a very particular nostalgia and kind of entertainment. Though set in 1950, the video is in the literary and cinematic tradition of white savannah romances, the most important recent incarnation of which might be the 1985 Meryl Streep film Out of Africa, whose story begins in 1913. Its familiarity is part of its appeal, and also part of why it’s now drawing flack for being insensitive. As James Kassaga Arinaitwe and Viviane Rutabingwa write at NPR:
Understanding social norms for the phone means accepting the fact that the things we call "phones" are actually computers.
When the telephone was new, it was a sensation. And not an altogether positive one. Sure, it was a machine that enabled a person to speak—as if by magic—to another person in another place in real time. But also, what if ghosts were sneaking through the line? This was a real concern.
Another panic point: What if the telephone created an entire “race of left-eared people,” as The New York Timesreported in 1904. “Watch a telephone for half a day, and it will be seen that almost every person that uses the instrument will place the receiver to the left ear.”
Along with questions about the physical and supernatural effects of the telephone came deliberations about etiquette. What was the proper greeting? (“Ahoy hoy,” was Alexander Graham Bell’s pick. Thomas Edison preferred “Hello.”)
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.