Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2019.03.28

U.S. version of 'one country, two systems'

the japan times on March 19, 2019
Is it time for the U.S. to reintroduce the 'fairness doctrine' to prevent the media from broadcasting extreme views?

WASHINGTON - I am writing this column in a Washington hotel room at midnight. Whenever my room is upgraded, I always watch two TV sets, one with CNN on in the bedroom and another with Fox News on in the living room. Why do I do this? Because those two channels seem to represent completely different groups of American constituents.

When I have only one TV set in my hotel room, I try to watch CNN and Fox News semi-simultaneously by changing channels every 10 to 15 minutes. If you compare the ways how those two channels report the same news at the same time, you might feel as if you were in one country with two contradictory systems.

Of course, this is nothing new. According to Nielsen Media Research, the Fox News Channel, established by Rupert Murdoch in 1996 to attract conservative viewers, allegedly became the dominant subscription news network in the United States as early as in 2008. The market trend has reportedly not changed much since.

Until recently, the market of cable news networks has been dominated by "conservative" Fox News, "liberal" MSNBC and CNN located somewhere in between. The gap between CNN and Fox News, however, seems to have widened since Donald Trump was elected president in 2016.

I first noticed that in June 2017 when I visited Washington for the fifth time since the start of 2016. While I was switching between CNN and Fox News as usual, I saw an extraordinary report on Fox News. A Fox anchorperson was not only talking about "fake news by CNN" but also referring to the "deep state" of America.

For readers who need clarification, the term "deep state" implies a conspiracy theory that, according to Wikipedia, is "a hybrid association of elements of government and parts of top-level finance and industry that is effectively able to govern the United States without reference to the consent of the governed."

The Fox News anchorperson didn't hesitate to claim, live on TV, that the recently fired former FBI director, the incumbent deputy attorney general and the newly appointed special counsel investigating the Russiagate scandal all belong to the "deep state" that was attempting a coup against the president.

I thought Fox News went too far, since I believe true journalism should distinguish facts from conspiracies. Having said that, I also felt that CNN's reporting had shifted from the center to the left. This hadn't changed, I felt, when I compared the reporting by news networks on the massacre of 50 people at two mosques in New Zealand last Friday.

Soon after the incident occurred, Trump tweeted, "Just spoke with Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, regarding the horrific events that have taken place over the past 24 hours. I informed the Prime Minister that we stand in solidarity with New Zealand -- and that any assistance the U.S.A. can give, we stand by ready to help. We love you New Zealand!" For Trump, this was not bad.

Nonetheless, CNN reported that Trump was "having a tough time calling out far right-wing white nationalism," "did not deliver a message of empathy and support to American Muslims," and "did not see" a worrying rise in white supremacy movements around the world.

CNN also reported that the attacker's manifesto "referred to Mr. Trump by name and saw him as a symbol of renewed white identity." They went further to say that, instead of her father, Ivanka Trump tried to reach out to Muslims around the world, tweeting "We join New Zealand and Muslim communities around the world in condemnation of this evil."

Fox News reporters, on the contrary, criticized their rival news channels, saying that "Some on CNN and MSNBC spent hours of airtime imputing this far-away murder spree to President Trump's influence. They ignored the fact that the recent U.S. spate of mass shootings at houses of worship got its grisly start during the Obama administration."

CNN continues blaming Trump, while Fox News almost ignored the news. Where is true journalism in the U.S.? I regret seriously that America is becoming "one country with two systems." The U.S. is deeply divided and has almost no prospect of closing the gap and becoming once again a unified nation in the foreseeable future.

This would never take place in Japan. Article 4 of Japan's Broadcast Act stipulates that "broadcasters must not negatively influence public safety or good morals," "must be politically fair" and, while "reporting must not distort the facts," "must clarify the points at issue from as many angles as possible where there are conflicting opinions."

This is not the end of the story and my questions continue. The first additional question is whether or not healthy journalism guarantees healthy democracy. If the answer is yes, the final and fundamental question will be whether or not legislation like Japan's broadcast act contribute to healthy journalism.

Contemplating on such issues in the U.S. capital, it seems almost impossible here to reintroduce to the American broadcasting market the "fairness doctrine" that was enacted by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) in 1949. Apparently, Japan's Broadcasting Act is based on this doctrine.

With an increase in the number of available channels, the administration of President Ronald Reagan reportedly pressured the FCC to eliminate the doctrine in 1987. This is the reason why Fox News and CNN now cast blame at each other on such issues such as the Russiagate scandal, the deep state or Trump's attitude vis-a-vis far right-wing white supremacists worldwide.

Would Japan's democracy be healthier by eliminating Article 4 and increasing more news reports supporting the government? Or would the American media divide be healed by reintroducing the "fairness doctrine" and preventing extreme views from being broadcast?

I do not have the right answers to the questions but one thing is for sure: Neither measure may work in the 21st century. It is not the issue of doctrines. This is an issue of whether or not the Western media can still retain true journalism in the middle of the artificial intelligence and social media revolutions, which will continue in the years to come.