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?
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.
Mary Hamm was in pain, though it was hard to tell. She bustled around the Starbucks, pouring drinks, restocking pastries, and greeting customers with an unshakable gaze perfected during 25 years of working in hospitality. Her smile said, How can I help you? Her eyes said, I know you’re going to order a caramel Frappuccino, so let’s do this.
Occupying prime space in a Fredericksburg, Virginia, strip mall, beside a Dixie Bones BBQ Post, this Starbucks pulls in about $40,000 a week. Hamm, 49, had been managing Starbucks stores for 12 years. The problem was her feet. After two decades in the food-service business, they had started to wear out. She had two metal plates in the right one, installed over the course of five surgeries. Now her left foot needed surgery too. She doesn’t like to complain, but when I asked her how often she was in pain, she smiled and said quietly, “All the time.”
From the beginning of the project, we've had the fundamental question in mind of what this site is—which is to say, both what it's become (as regular readers know, a lot's changed here over time) and what we want it to be. Is it the website of a magazine? Is it a news site? Is it, as James Franco possibly once suggested, a blog?
The answers, we recognized, are all in one way or another yes. But we figured we'd try a thought experiment: What if we described TheAtlantic.com as a direct, dynamic, digital extension of our core identity in journalism—as a real-time magazine?
That seemed to us both authentic and aspirational: an idea that captured what The Atlantic has been doing in new media for years and a framework that could bring the right focus to rebuilding TheAtlantic.com now.
When healthcare is at its best, hospitals are four-star hotels, and nurses, personal butlers at the ready—at least, that’s how many hospitals seem to interpret a government mandate.
When Department of Health and Human Services administrators decided to base 30 percent of hospitals’ Medicare reimbursement on patient satisfaction survey scores, they likely figured that transparency and accountability would improve healthcare. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) officials wrote, rather reasonably, “Delivery of high-quality, patient-centered care requires us to carefully consider the patient’s experience in the hospital inpatient setting.” They probably had no idea that their methods could end up indirectly harming patients.
J.J. Abrams, the director tasked with bringing Star Wars back to the top of the crowded franchise heap, has always been happy to borrow. When he set out to make a new Star Trek and drag that moribund cinematic franchise back into blockbuster territory, he cheerfully swapped in some very familiar visual language to help it over the hill. Early on in the film, James Kirk (Chris Pine), nursing a desire to transcend his farmboy life, rides a motorcycle to see the U.S.S. Enterprise being built at a shipyard, and gazes up at it longingly. Star Wars fans would connect the scene to one at the beginning of the first 1977 film, when Luke Skywalker wistfully watches the dual suns of his home planet set; Star Trek's producers even called the scene "our Tatooine moment." Abrams has never exactly been a visionary artist, but he's a master of elevating the familiar—a fact made clear in the previews of his new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens.
And Americans? The land that gave the world the iPhone, the Declaration of Independence, and the Kinsey Report prefers emoji that depict technology, royalty, and… eggplants.
These preferences were revealed in a new report from SwiftKey, a software company that makes keyboards for iOS and Android phones. The report describes global trends in emoji usage and breaks them out by country and by language. Like nations themselves, it seems, emoji usage is also shaped by culture, climate, and geography.
What else did the report find? According to SwiftKey:
The most-used category of emoji used are “happy faces.” Happy faces, sad faces, and hearts make up more than 70 percent of global emoji usage.
Pope Francis is widely believed to be a cool Pope—a huggable, Upworthyish, meme-ready, self-deprecating leader for a new generation of worshippers. “He has described himself as a sinner,” writes Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Pope Francis’ entry on Time’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world, “and his nonjudgmental views on … issues such as sexual orientation and divorce have brought hope to millions of Roman Catholics around the world.”
But there’s one issue that can make even Cool Pope Francis himself sound a little, well, judgy. “A society with a greedy generation, that doesn’t want to surround itself with children, that considers them above all worrisome, a weight, a risk, is a depressed society,” the pontiff told an audience in St. Peter’s Square earlier this year. “The choice not to have children is selfish. Life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiplies: It is enriched, not impoverished.”
“Oh my God, can you grab him?” I shouted at the woman at the door, as my 3-month-old puppy darted out into the cold and I tried to stop my 6-year-old twins from following suit. She obliged, and I was able to get a proper look at her. It was in the 30s outside, unseasonably cold for Florida, and the young woman holding my squiggling puppy was wearing nothing but a light spring sweater, shivering and looking miserable. I invited her in.
Over a cup of coffee, she introduced herself as Tysharia Young and tried to do what she’d come to do: sell me overpriced magazine subscriptions. It was not the first time someone had knocked on my door for this purpose, and I was sure it wouldn’t be the last. Gainesville has had such issues with magazine sellers that our local police department recently issued a public warning.
In 1979, almost a year into the papacy of John Paul II, a novel called The Vicar of Christ spent 13 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. The work of a Princeton legal scholar, Walter F. Murphy, it featured an unlikely papal candidate named Declan Walsh—first a war hero, then a United States Supreme Court justice, and then (after an affair and his wife’s untimely death) a monk—who is summoned to the throne of Saint Peter by a deadlocked, desperate conclave.
Once elevated, Walsh takes the name Francesco—that is, Francis—and sets about using the office in extraordinary ways. He launches a global crusade against hunger, staffed by Catholic youth and funded by the sale of Vatican treasures. He intervenes repeatedly in world conflicts, at one point flying into Tel Aviv during an Arab bombing campaign. He lays plans to gradually reverse the Church’s teachings on contraception and clerical celibacy, and banishes conservative cardinals to monastic life when they plot against him. He flirts with the Arian heresy, which doubted Jesus’s full divinity, and he embraces Quaker-style religious pacifism, arguing that just-war theory is out of date in an age of nuclear arms and total war. (This last move eventually gets him assassinated, probably by one of the governments threatened by his quest for peace.)
The Russian president’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, didn’t use that expression when we talked by phone, but that’s what he described to me: a man at the center of an ever-churning machine processing vast amounts of news and data at his command.
“Sometimes we’re wondering what is the limit for a human being for absorbing this huge amount of information,” Peskov told me, “but, well, it’s really a very, very, very heavy job.”
Peskov, speaking fluent English, described the operation. “First of all, the information and press department of the presidential administration prepares digests on print media, on Internet sources, on domestic media—federal and regional.
“We have special people working around the clock, preparing TV digests. We’re recording TV news on the [Russian] federal channels for him during the day. Obviously, it’s very hard for him to watch news so we make digests, let’s say, zip versions of TV news, divided into issues.”