Do broadcasters *have* to tell the truth in the US?
February 8, 2011 11:11 AM   Subscribe

Where is a definitive source (& BTW Mefi post) for the widely held belief that recently the US Supreme Court ruled that a news organisation does NOT have an obligation to tell the truth?

OK, thats a bare bones query, my recollection is that there was a recent (last 18 months or so) decision which removed the obligation or duty on a broadcaster to be truthful in their news broadcasts. Is this true or is it a warped recollection or myth? Cheers from a foreigner :)
posted by dash_slot- to Law & Government (10 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Not recent, not supreme court, but is this what you are thinking of: The Media Can Legally Lie?
posted by fings at 11:20 AM on February 8, 2011

Best answer: The case is New World Communication of Tampa, Inc. v. Akre, 866 So.2d 1231 (Dist. Ct. App. Fla. 2003). The procedural posture and actual issue on appeal are such that the case is not 100% on point for the proposition that "news broadcasters have no obligation to tell the truth," but that is one way to read the case. Certainly the Fox affiliate in that case was fighting tooth and nail against such an obligation.
posted by jedicus at 11:25 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

The debate is current in Canada. Maybe that's where you heard it?
posted by rocket88 at 11:36 AM on February 8, 2011

Uh, this is not a "widely held belief", but a fact. Fox News went to court to uphold their right to present information that is not true.

I see jedicus has provided the citation. More background available on Jane Akre's wiki page.
posted by Aquaman at 11:38 AM on February 8, 2011

And here is the nicely detailed Project Censored report on the matter.
posted by Aquaman at 11:42 AM on February 8, 2011

I believe this issue / court case was documented in the Corporation.
posted by eustatic at 3:07 PM on February 8, 2011

Fox News went to court to uphold their right to present information that is not true.

I don't think that is an honest description of what happened. I can't really find any way of reading the outcome of that case in a way that creates a "right to present information that is not true." What happened was that the court decided that the FCC's de facto policy against untruthfully distorting the news -- which exists as precedent from past FCC decisions -- isn't a "law, rule, or regulation" in the context of whistleblower protections.

So the effect is that someone working at a broadcaster does not have any protection against being fired if they threaten to go to the FCC with something the broadcaster is doing. That's crappy, but it seems to be the fault of the FCC for never formalizing the distortion policy.

Since the allegedly distorted news program in Florida was never broadcast, the FCC never got involved, so its regulation (or lack thereof) was never an issue. If the broadcaster had gone forward and aired the program, then perhaps the FCC could have gotten involved ... but it never had the opportunity.

The real problem, it seems to me, is that the anti-distortion / truthfulness policy has never been codified. If the FCC came up with an actual regulation, then presumably it would qualify as a "law, rule or regulation" for the purpose of whistleblower protections, and the New World case would be OBE. But the FCC doesn't seem particularly interested in doing this, or in fact of even taking any action on distortion in the news in general.

tl;dr: The problem isn't a particular court case, it's that the FCC has become the handmaiden of the broadcasting industry. Distortion of the news is just one way that corruption manifests itself.
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:57 PM on February 8, 2011

Possibly related, though not specifically about broadcasting. There are a couple of cases making their way through the appeals courts to determine if the Stolen Valor Act is a violation of the First Amendment. (The Stolen Valor Act makes it a crime to lie about having received a military decoration.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:42 PM on February 8, 2011

Best answer: From the Project Censored article:

During their appeal, FOX asserted that there are no written rules against distorting news in the media. They argued that, under the First Amendment, broadcasters have the right to lie or deliberately distort news reports on public airwaves. Fox attorneys did not dispute Akre’s claim that they pressured her to broadcast a false story, they simply maintained that it was their right to do so.
posted by Aquaman at 7:00 PM on February 8, 2011

The outcome of a particular case is not necessarily a vindication of the particular argument that the winning party made in court. Fox might have used the Chewbacca defense, but the decision doesn't say anything about it and doesn't imply that's what mattered.

Unless there is some other aspect to the case that I'm just not seeing, I can't see any way that it actually created precedent that would have affected what a broadcaster can or can't say, except insofar as they were previously restrained by employees feeling free to go to the FCC under the protection of whistleblower laws (which I'm rather skeptical of since it doesn't seem to have happened before). The case seems to have be pretty narrowly decided, and, to be honest, doesn't seem that outrageous; the FCC's rather informal policy doesn't look on its face to be a "law, rule, or regulation" so I don't see how it could have been decided the other way.

The issue is worth getting worked up about, but that case doesn't seem to be the smoking gun that people are implying it is.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:37 AM on February 9, 2011

« Older This mouse is losing its tail.   |   How can someone with these mental health problems... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.