The other day, I was at Costco, and I decided to try an experiment. I took a sample of a chicken nugget, bit into it, then yelled, “POISON!” Falling down prostate on the floor, I started twitching and making choking sounds.
Gasp. Horror. Shock. Everyone around me dropped their samples. A few clutched at their necks, wondering if they too, were afflicted…
OK, so that didn’t really happen. I don’t have the guts—and frankly, if I did, there’s a hell of a chance that I would have been trampled to death by a stampede of fat people in motorized carts.
But fat people in motorized carts don’t scare Fox News; for years now, politicians and talking heads have lied, twisted, and spun the facts to their advantage. We all know that. However, with the Republican Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United and McCutcheon decisions allowing the privileged, rich, elite to spend as much money as they want to buy elections, we’ve reached a whole new level of bullshit.
RUN! RUN! THERE’S A SALE ON HALLOWEEN COLORED YARN AT MICHAEL’S, AND THE NINNIES ARE ON THE MOVE BEARING SUGAR COOKIES AND BAD SWEATERS!!!
Freedom of Speech, say the elephants in robes. We can’t have restrictions on election spending, because it violates the First Amendment. After all, corporations are people and money is speech. Right? Sigh… right.
But even if we accept that (we shouldn’t—and I’ll remind everyone that Senate Republicans filibustered a Constitutional Amendment to remedy the situation), here’s the question: are people allowed to lie in political advertisements, or even on “news” organizations like Fox, if those lies cause harm? Because while Freedom of Speech protects the individual’s right to say whatever they want, it doesn’t protect all speech, especially if it could cause harm to others. The cliché is that you can’t yell fire in a crowded theatre. Or presumably, “poison” in the Costco sample line.
HIDE YO’ KIDZ, HIDE YO’ WIFE, CUZ THEY RAPIN’ E’ERYBODY UP’N HE’E!!!
Actually, what Oliver Wendell Holmes said was this: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic … . The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger.”
So again, why is it that politicians and political organizations are allowed to lie, knowingly, without penalty, if those lies present “a clear and present danger?” My guess is that Chief Justice John Roberts would say that lying doesn’t represent “a clear and present danger.”
Au contraire douchebag—it does. One example is that all of the lying about Obamacare—specifically the lie that states will have to pay for it—has allowed Republican governors to deny their poorest citizens medical insurance because they refused to expand Medicaid. People will die as a consequence.
If we expand the frame, we see that lying for political purposes has done irreparable harm to this nation and its citizens, and very much constitutes “clear and present” danger. Consider climate change. We may be past the point where we can actually do anything to stop it, even though it threatens to change human life on the planet radically, and even though it’s essentially an accepted fact within the scientific community. Indeed, the ONLY reason there’s ANY doubt about climate change is that there’s been a massive campaign of propaganda by the Republican Party, Big Oil/Energy, and right-wing media to introduce skepticism on the matter. Superstorm Sandy, drought in the Southwest, the extinction of certain animal species, the loss of glaciers, and rising sea levels are all negative consequences of political speech by people who have no other motive than to lie, spin, and distort the truth in their quest for power. Good luck telling people on the Jersey shore that they weren’t in “clear and present” danger when their houses were violently flooded by Sandy.
OH MY GOD—A CELEBRITY SAID SOMETHING UNTOWARD ON TWITTER! QUICK! TURN ON CNN SO WE CAN PANIC ABOUT IT AND POST SHIT ON TWITTER!
Of course, I understand that the Freedom of Speech should protect an individual’s right to say what they believe, even if that means they don’t believe in climate change or that the Holocaust never happened or whatever else they want to believe no matter how much evidence there is to the contrary. We can’t stop them, nor should we—people have a right to their opinion, true or not. Even if it makes us want to punch them in the balls.
THE EARTH HAIN’T ROUND! ’T LOOKS FLAT FROM HERE—THA’S JUST LIBERAL GOBBLEDY GOOK!
However, when it comes to using the power of the press, the power of mass media like television and radio, don’t we have a right as a society—and indeed a duty—to make sure that it’s not being used to spread lies that are putting people in harm’s way?
I’d argue that we do… but then, how do we enforce it? Very carefully. After all, we don’t want to limit or restrict political speech, or create bastions of governmental power that could do so, because then a political party, faction, etc., could effectively censor its opposition—and that would be far worse.
ISIS IS STREAMIN’ FIGHTERS ACROSS THA BORDER! GRAB YER GUNS BOYS! WE’LL SHOW THOSE B’HEADERS HOW TA LYNCH A BODY! SHOOT ANYTHIN’ THA’S BROWN!
Still, there are things we can do. For instance, the FCC has rules about what people can say and what they can’t, and other rules like announcing the time every hour, etc.
So I propose this: if a program wants to bill itself as “news”, they should have to undergo a process of scrutiny that isn’t grounded in the power of government, but rather, citizen initiative. Here’s how it would work: suppose I’m listening to NPR’s political coverage, and they say something that I know to be factually incorrect. No problem—I just register an email complaint on a website that sends the message to the State Office of Press Ethics.
Who runs SOPE (nice, right, rhymes with “soap”, as in “I’ll clean your mouth out”)? An elected official who acts as judge, and has the power to hire staff to help them sort through and validate or reject complaints. If a complaint is found to be valid, that citizen has the right to issue a statement of correction—again, vetted by SOPE—which they may read personally, or opt to have the on-air personality read. The statement of correction would last at least three minutes, or as long as the original segment that was found to be false.
This system wouldn’t infringe on speech—even false speech—but it would allow citizens a chance to correct the record. In addition, having programming interrupted so that Bill from Long Island could issue a correction in his nasally voice would provide a powerful disincentive to lie in the first place. Finally, I’d argue that it’d be an excellent check on the power of the media, which is, after all, verging on an oligarchy, with very few companies controlling the vast majority of television and radio stations, not to mention newspapers, etc.
Now look, it will probably never happen, because our political system is so frozen that no proposal, no matter how rational, can make its way through Congress—especially a Republican House ruled by men so craven, contrarian, and crazy that they’ll vote to end Obamacare 50 times, but refuse to bring up a bi-partisan bill to fight wild fires.
But in absence of such a system, it’s our responsibility as citizens to fight for the truth, and to expose frauds where we find them. Moreover, it’s our responsiblity to vote out politicians that lie.
(hint: they’re usually Republicans).