By Sean Glendon
When Congress enacted the Glass-Steagal Act as part of the U.S. Banking Act of 1933, it was an attempt to stabilize financial markets by barring banks from participating in both investment banking and commercial banking activities. Some economists have argued that the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which repealed the remainder of the Glass-Steagal Act in 1999, played a role in the 2008 financial crisis.
This legislation was enacted to increase trust in an industry that had lost the trust of many Americans previously. With the rise of “fake news” and “alternative facts” and only 32% of Americans trusting mass media (down from 50% in 2005 and 40% in 2015, according to Gallup), has this country come to a point where the media needs its own Glass-Steagal Act to increase consumer trust?
Before diving deeper into this question and the potential merits of such legislation, it is important to acknowledge the difficulties of such a proposal. For starters, such a regulation would likely be shot down by fans of limited government, including those who distrust the media. Depending on the implementation strategy of such legislation, there could very well become a Constitutional crisis. Would such a proposal be in violation of the 1st Amendment? This answer would depend on the actual legislation drafted. Can the government actively ban a news organization from creating pure news and op-ed pieces? Media organizations would have a legitimate case to bring to the Supreme Court.
An approach that could have a higher Supreme Court defense success rate would involve the labeling of articles based on their level of facts compared to their level of opinions. In this case, how many categories would exist and what would fall where? Where would this article fall? How are penalties balanced so that they prevent violations without bestowing an undue burden upon these organizations? Would such legislation apply to all organizations regardless of size? Could a local newspaper be held to the same standard as multinational media corporations? Would enforcement costs drive local newspapers out of business? The questions are limitless.
While enforcement sounds difficult at first glance, there is another major issue that exists below the surface. In 2013, the Internal Revenue Service faced scrutiny for targeting conservative organizations that were applying for tax-exempt status based on terms such as “tea party” and “patriot.” At least 466 groups were targeted and faced either long application delays or more intense questioning than the Average Joe.
Could you just imagine a President having the power to target dissenting journalists? This would make the actions of the IRS look relatively benign. However, this could easily become a reality without the proper preventative measures in place in such legislation. While organizations like The New York Times should be held accountable for factually incorrect reporting about the Trump administration, the New York Times should have the ability to hold the Trump administration accountable. President Trump should not have the ability to target the (failing) New York Times (sad!), as the next Democratic President should not be able to target conservative media organizations like Fox News. A President has the right to engage in arguments with media organizations, but the power to actively disarm the press should not exist.
If people are unaware that they are consuming news that is heavily biased or incorrect, why would they change their habits? A lack of an aware public can be detrimental, and there seems to have been an even stronger blurring of fact vs. fiction on social media. It is one thing to share an article that is extremely biased, but it is another issue altogether when baby boomers that don’t know how to fact check blindly share things on Facebook. After countless celebrity death hoaxes spreading like wildfire, it would make sense for people to realize that they need to verify information and not believe everything they read. However, this clearly isn’t happening.
The Simpsons did not predict that Donald Trump would run for President, and the Pope did not endorse Donald Trump. President Obama did not sign an Executive Order banning the Pledge of Allegiance in schools. The “news” about President Obama banning the Pledge had 2,177,000 shares and comments.
This presents an interesting conundrum to social media companies. Do Facebook and Twitter have an obligation to police their websites for fake posts? They might. But realistically their obligation is to maximize shareholder returns. If these two goals align, great. If not, it is unlikely to see this policing occurring.
Is regulating the media in the way that the financial market was regulated a realistic possibility? Probably not. Is it necessary? Once again, probably not. However, it has become clear that a major industry in the United States has lost the faith of the consumer. This is important to note, especially because this industry previously had the duty of informing the public. Where does the media go from here, and does it go there organically or with its hand being forced by government? This is a complex solution with many options and variables to consider, but consideration is a must. Something must change. Mark Twain famously said, “if you don’t read the newspaper you’re uninformed. If you do read the newspaper you’re misinformed.” The platform may have changed beyond traditional newspaper, but his message continues to resonate.