Life in the Box: TV Warning Labels
Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time worrying about lies spread on television, radio, cable and online media. This morning I had a grand idea: let’s put warning labels on programs and news feeds to give consumers a way of evaluating whether to watch or not. Or whether to believe or not.
Although it may have seemed like a revolutionary idea to me in the dark of the night, by morning light I see that this idea has many precedents and some major problems.
There is already a government rating system for television. In 1996, Congress set it up to help parents know about content without having to watch everything themselves. The system rates for age-appropriateness, sexual content, violence, and “bad behavior” like smoking. Parents seem to like it, as far as it goes.
Speaking of smoking, don’t cigarettes have warning labels? The government also requires labeling of food we consume, and holds standards for many of the other products we buy, based on safety issues mostly. We are protected from junk food, but not junk news?
If making sure voters all get good information isn’t a safety issue, what is? Shouldn’t the government protect us from liars and bad news sources? Sure, people can fact-check without government assistance. But how many people really do fact check? I fact-checked that, and the answer—one in ten—is not enough.
Warning people may sound logical, but in fact, warning labels on TV and radio will not have any more effect than warning labels on cigarettes or junk food. We know that despite the warnings, some people will still consume them. With media consumption, warnings don’t work because of how our brains are built. Let’s take the case of Rush Limbaugh.
Ever since 1988, when Rush Limbaugh started his very popular “entertainment show,” he has impersonated a newscaster. The problem is, his “news” is a mix of lies and truth. When factual observers pressed him on this, he said, “I’m not a newsman, I’m an entertainer.” So why is he listed as one of the most trusted “news sources” in conservative circles? (And simultaneously wins the “least trusted” among the rest of us.)
Politifact stunningly rates his factual statements average as “zero.” How can a guy like that stay on the air? Broadcasters are supposed to set standards.* They didn’t with Rush. Could money have anything to do with it? As in the survival of a dying medium called AM radio? So, problem one: financial success “trumps” fairness.
Apparently Rush’s fans like his confidence, “candor,” and humor. He’s a bull in a china shop where facts are concerned, but listeners like the drama of all of his crashing around.
He also uses his 3-plus hours on the daily airwaves to make people scared—scared of stuff that he makes up. According to a 2011 study of the brains of conservatives and liberals, conservatives are more likely to have strong reactions to fear-mongering. So, problem two: some people actually believe what he’s saying because it scares them.**
Problem three is also brain related. If neuroscientists are correct, most people are so confident that they know how to tell truth from fiction that they never question their own opinions. If they think they are right, they then think the fact-checkers are wrong. If we were to “flag” untrue statements, whether on the air or on the web, not many people would believe the flags. Really? Look at my links to find out about the Dunning-Kruger effect.***
So, labels or flags would likely be a waste of time. Sigh. That’s not to say that the fact-check web sites are bad. Those of us who are motivated by our lack of knowledge, who seek out a broader understanding than what we have, absolutely love to look things up. Here’s a great Media Bias Chart I just found if you are in the mood.****
But while poking around the internet this morning, I stumbled upon something unexpected: Rush’s radio kingdom is shrinking. Not because he isn’t popular—but because advertisers are boycotting him to the point that major radio stations have stopped carrying his show. Now that’s something! Sure, he’s still got the internet, and might even turn to satellite radio, but talk radio was his starting point and is still the easiest point of entry for his listeners.
If raking in money was why radio stations carried his show, then losing money is the reason they’re stopping that coverage. It got too expensive, and advertisers have left in droves. And the reason advertisers have pulled out of his and other political talk radio programs is—get this—activism by people on the internet. A successful boycott campaign was started by Media Matters for America in 2004; people telling advertisers to “Flush Rush” from their ad buys. My old boss Sid S. will be glad to hear it. He declared that economics is the fundamental force underlying every conflict.
I’m a little relieved to hear that there is something that works to decrease the distribution of Rush’s vitriolic bull spouting. I wish, in my dream world, that radio and television broadcasters (and cable and Facebook and so on) would just not air bad programs. I still blame them for destroying the minds of millions.
But, since that’s water under the bridge, the only thing left to do in this moment is to prevent as much brainwashing of this kind as we can. I’m going to see if Media Matters needs another citizen to step up and write feedback to corporations about where they spend their advertising dollars. It’s not my revolutionary idea, but I can live with theirs for a while. At least until I’m proven wrong again!
Nancy Heather Brown is a retired, Emmy Award-winning television producer whose career has included interviewing, writing, narrating and editing for a span of four decades. Today, she enjoys learning new things and reflecting upon the creative process and life issues, both inside and outside the box. Her opinions are her own, and are not necessarily those of this web site.