Should the Press be Free to Lie?



Thomas Jefferson was a staunch defender of the “free press.” As I understand it, Jefferson, more than anyone, was responsible for protecting press freedom in America.

I wonder what he would think if he were alive today.

Consider this recent item from Media Reform:

Many news agencies lie and distort facts, not many have the guts to admit it…in court…positioning the First Amendment as their defense!

The attorneys for Fox, owned by media baron Rupert Murdoch, successfully argued the First Amendment gives broadcasters the right to lie or deliberately distort news reports on the public airwaves.

The case involved journalist Jane Akre who was fired by Fox for refusing to broadcast false information about the use of growth hormones in cattle. She won a $425,000 award in a lower court but a Florida Appeals Court jury overturned the verdict.

The jurors did not dispute Akre’s claim that Fox pressured her to broadcast a false story to avoid offending its advertisers. But they decided there is no law against deliberate distortion of the news and the Constitution protects the press against any such law.

Strangely, advertisers don’t enjoy the same freedom. Here’s what the FCC web site says about that:

When consumers see or hear an advertisement, whether it’s on the Internet, radio or television, or anywhere else, federal law says that ad must be truthful, not misleading, and, when appropriate, backed by scientific evidence. The Federal Trade Commission enforces these truth-in-advertising laws, and it applies the same standards no matter where an ad appears – in newspapers and magazines, online, in the mail, or on billboards or buses.

So, advertisers are required by law to tell the truth but “the press” can lie their heads off with impunity?

The FCC says the that “rigging or slanting the news is a most heinous act against the public interest.”  And it promises to investigate complaints that broadcasters distort the news. But so far, I’ve heard of no plans to investigate Fox News despite the broadcaster’s admission of deliberate lying.

Media Reform  is pushing for the labeling of news content according to “ethical journalism standards that have been codified by the Society of Professional Journalists.”

And as a former journalist, I would hate to see the “free press” go, but with self-confessed liars like Fox and the scurrilous trolls and cyber bullies that plague the Internet, I wonder whether it might be time for some kind of restraint.

Click for the Media Reform item.

Click for the FCC and news distortion.

Click for Jefferson’s thoughts.