While student protesters on college campuses may not think so, the First Amendment is a beautiful, precious, and rare thing.
Look no further than one of our closest allies, the United Kingdom. This week, the U.K broadcasting regulation office, Ofcom, ruled that Fox News broadcasts violated laws regarding impartiality.
Tucker Carlson’s May 25th episode attacked the U.K. government for engaging in politically correct policy rather than seriously combating the threat of homegrown Islamic terrorism, the Guardian reported. The program included criticism of Prime Minister Theresa May, Manchester Mayor Beverly Hughes, as well as other local and law enforcement officials.
Ofcom’s ruling concluded there was “no reflection of the views of the UK government or any of the authorities or people criticised” and the presenter “did not challenge the views of his contributors; instead, he reinforced their views.”
Sean Hannity’s January 31st episode featured clips of public officials reacting negatively to the executive order banning travelers entering the United States from certain predominantly Muslim countries, followed by a rebuttal and dismissal from Hannity. In short, he did his usual opening monologue. Ofcom was not a fan.
“Ofcom acknowledged that viewers were likely to expect Hannity to address controversial issues from a perspective that is generally more supportive of the US Republican party. However, the likely audience expectations did not provide sufficient contextual justification to outweigh the numerous highly critical statements made about people who had opposed the order, coupled with the clear support being expressed for the policies of President Trump.”
Consider for a moment that somewhere in London there is a government bureaucrat who goes to work every day with the sole purpose of watching the previous evening’s cable shows to determine whether critical coverage provided “sufficient contextual justification.” After writing up the report on Hannity this same bureaucrat, after a quick trip to the water cooler and looking in a mirror to check his comb-over, determines whether Tucker Carlson accurately reflected the views of the U.K. government.
These subjective determinations do not come with a mere slap on the wrist. Ofcom violations can result in substantial fines paid by media companies. Fortunately for Rupert Murdoch and Fox, they stopped broadcasting Fox News in Britain in August, so they will not be subject to fines for this activity. Sky, the British satellite broadcast company partially owned by Fox, paid an indirect price, with shares dipping 1.72% upon the announcement. Investors are worried that the announcement does not bode well for the government’s review of Fox’s attempt to purchase the remaining portion of Sky that it does not own.
While it is easy to shake our head at our friends across the ocean, it’s worth noting that such nonsense could easily happen here at home. Despite the First Amendment, the Supreme Court upheld the so-called “fairness doctrine” in 1969. The policy was created to ensure equal time among the conservatives and liberals on radio and television broadcasts. While the policy was repealed in 1987, liberals long sought to restore it under the guise that the federal government must ensure a fair and balanced media environment. For his part, President Trump has opined on Twitter that he would like to see something like the fairness doctrine reinstituted.
Of course, objective and professional journalism is important. Considering the amount of fake news and Russian propaganda which makes its way into our Facebook and Twitter feeds on a daily basis, everyone must be conscious of where they get their news.
None of this means that we need some centralized agency of imperfect and biased human beings making one big collective decision for all of us. No matter what the Supreme Court says (and the Warren Court was wrong a lot), regimes like Ofcom or the fairness doctrine violate the First Amendment’s right to a free press and free speech.
Anyone watching Hannity or Tucker Carlson Tonight for news are fooling themselves. Tucker and Sean do not hold themselves out to be objective broadcasters. They are not journalists. They provide commentary and analysis regarding the day’s events. In 2017, such shows are not a novel concept. Anyone tuning into Fox News at 8 or 9pm over the last 25 years understand this.
While Hannity and Carlson have their detractors across the political spectrum, all Americans should relish the fact that they are not being overseen by some Washington bureaucrat demanding that they play nice. Any opinion, as long there’s a large enough audience, is welcome on American airwaves.
Long live Sean Hannity. Long live Tucker Carlson. Long live Bill Maher and Rachel Maddow, for that matter.
Be thankful for the robust freedoms we enjoy, and how rare and precious the First Amendment is, even among Western democracies.
And be vigilant at future attempts to infringe upon it.