Our minds on media.

Musings on the effects of media on cognition.

You Can’t Yell ‘Fire’ in a Crowded Theater but You Can on TV

[UPDATE: Apparently, I’m clearly not the only one with a problem with Glenn Beck. A petition making the rounds has caused multiple advertisers to stop their support of Glenn Beck’s show. If his rhetoric and fear-mongering bothers you, you can help by signing this petition—maybe we don’t need licensing after all; this is democracy in action!]

The general (colloquial) understanding of the free speech principle in the United States is that you can say what you want so long as it doesn’t endanger others; that is to say, you cannot yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater when there isn’t a fire. So what about yelling “Fire!” on television or in email? Or instead of yelling fire, what about spreading malicious lies that inspire riot? Fox News Commentator, Glenn Beck, consistently tells lies on his “news” program. And they are just the kind of lies that would upset his viewers. The worst of it is, I don’t think Beck cares all that much about these issues or sees anything wrong with bending the truth, because his primary concern (as with most TV personalities—not just the conservative ones) is his television program’s ratings and whether he is selling well with advertisers. His a cynic and the worst kind.

I can’t help but feel that the airwaves are too powerful to be put in the hands of men and women who mean to manipulate the public for commercial gain and not use them for establishing facts and educating the public. I’m not at all adverse to a diversity of opinion. You have every right to say that the bills before congress on health care are “scary” or that you believe they represent socialism—such statements constitute opinion. But there should be a limit for the number of blatantly false statements you make on the air. We have to have licenses to own cars because they are dangerous, doctors need licenses to practice because they can do damage—shouldn’t hosts on television shows have licenses as well? The FAA certainly regulates the use of cursing and anything they deem indecent; why is falsehood ignored? And if you want to complain that licensing “news” organizations could potentially shut people out, well, there’s always the internet.

People have been complaining about the polarization of politics in the country for a while and they often cite the beginning for that in the early to late eighties. According to Matthew Dowd on ABC’s “This Week,” Justice Antonin Scalia—who now firmly represents the right side of the court—was still approved by the Senate by a vote of 98. Is it any coincidence that the consolidation of radio stations and the introduction of cable television in this country coincides with this enormous uptick in our polarization? The media has towerized and the public’s views have become polarized. There is simply less information out in the system and less room for pragmatists, who, while not ratings-grabbers, are nonetheless central to reasonable debate in our country.

On the one hand, I’m almost happy to sit on the sidelines of a debate such as this, since it could easily be one that fades away with time. Murdoch and Co. will never monetize the internet the way they intend to, and the world audience for anything is balkanizing. Even Glenn Beck, at his best, nets only 2.2 million viewers. It may seem like a lot, but in a country of 304 million people, it’s seven-tenths of a percent. And I, for one, would rather see fact-checking come from public and academic institutions like FactCheck. But can they handle all the muck that’s out there? As television’s audience numbers wane and internet site popularity grows, we’ll just have the same old problem all over again. You can just make up facts to suit your argument.

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