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Michael Stoff, Director 305 East 23rd St, CLA 2.102, (G3600) Austin, TX 78712-1250 • 512-471-1442

2011 Worthington Essay Prize

Topic: Journalistic Responsibility

You are one of five commissioners of the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC has recently received a huge volume of mail from citizens concerned about news programs on television and the radio that have been caught disseminating demonstrably false information on the air.

Two cases of journalistic irresponsibility have caused particular concern:
A conservative radio program in Oklahoma warned that President Smith had “stated his intention” to issue an executive order on the day of his inauguration, “outlawing firearms,” and that police would be sent door to door to confiscate citizens’ guns. Believing this story, a Tulsa man shot and killed two police officers he saw in his neighborhood on inauguration day.

A liberal cable TV news program covering a controversial trial in New Jersey reported that the defendant had been “let off.”  Believing this to mean that he had been found not guilty and released, outraged people in that community rioted, causing millions of dollars in property damage. In fact, the murder suspect had been found guilty of manslaughter and was sentenced to two years in prison.

The FCC Chairman has suggested that a new system of fines could be implemented, allowing the Commission to take punitive action against newscasters and their networks for knowingly broadcasting lies, or for representing as fact any information they had not diligently researched.  At a recent meeting, you had questions for the chairman:

“Won’t we face a constitutional challenge on first amendment grounds?” you asked.

“This isn’t about censorship,” the Chairman said. “It’s about protecting people from harm. The first amendment doesn’t protect a person from shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. This is the same thing. These so-called ‘journalists’ are inciting violence by lying on television.  If we can punish somebody for cursing on TV, we ought to be able to punish them for saying the theater’s on fire.”

“And how do we decide when a journalist has lied?” you asked. “Where do we draw the line between an opinion and a statement of fact?”

“I was thinking you could help with that,” the Chairman said. “Can you write a proposal for me on how this policy could be implemented?”

“I’m still thinking about it,” you said. “I’m not sure it should be implemented.”

“Okay, “ the Chairman said. “Either write me a proposal on how to implement the policy, or write a statement on why you think it shouldn’t be imposed.”
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