FCC asked to monitor “hate speech,” “misinformation” online
By Matthew Lasar
Over thirty organizations want the Federal Communications Commission to open up a probe on "hate speech" and "misinformation" in media. "Hate has developed as a profit-model for syndicated radio and cable television programs masquerading as ‘news’," they wrote to the FCC earlier this month.
As for the Internet, it "gives the illusion that news sources have increased, but in fact there are fewer journalists employed now than before," they charge. "Moreover, on the Internet, speakers can hide in the cloak of anonymity, emboldened to say things that they may not say in the public eye."
The groups who want this new proceeding include Free Press, the Media Access Project, Common Cause, the Prometheus Radio Project, and the League of United Latin American Citizens. Their statement, filed in the Commission’s Future of Media proceeding, comes in support of a petition to the agency submitted over a year ago by the National Hispanic Media Coalition.
"Hate speech against vulnerable groups is pervasive in our media—it is not limited to a few isolated instances or any one media platform," NHMC warned the FCC in 2009. "Indeed, many large mainstream media corporations regularly air hate speech, and it is prolific on the Internet. Hate speech takes various forms, from words advocating violence to those creating a climate of hate towards vulnerable groups. Cumulatively, hate speech creates an environment of hate and prejudice that legitimizes violence against its targets."
The coalition has asked the agency to request public comments on hate speech in the media, inquire into its extent, explore "the relationship between hate speech in the media and hate crimes," and look into options "for counteracting or reducing the negative effects of such speech."
In addition, the groups wants the FCC to examine "the prevalence of misinformation" in the media, since misinformation "creates a climate of prejudice."
"The NHMC understands that those who would prefer hate speech to remain under the radar will claim that such an inquiry violates the First Amendment," the group added. "No doubt they will raise the red herring of the restoration of the ‘fairness doctrine,’ trying to divert the attention of the vast majority of Americans who find hate speech reprehensible."
NHMC says it wants none of this, "but merely the collection of information and data about hate speech."
The gist of NHMC’s concern is that "hate speech over the media is producing concrete harms," particularly against Latinos in the United States. Hate crimes against Latinos have gone up 40 percent over the last four years, the petition says. And the victims of hate speech suffer not just physical but psychological distress. "These harms may be particularly acute for Latino children given that children are uniquely susceptible to messages in the media."
The campaign for this probe comes as the national temperature is rising over Arizona’s controversial immigration enforcement law. No surprise then that the petition cites various related commentaries from talk radio and cable television, such as this excerpt from a tirade allegedly given by nationally syndicated radio host Michael Savage:
America is being overrun by an invasion force from Mexico… Is it racist to protect your nation against an invading horde, from another nation that wants to sweep you off the map?… And you think the gang banger with baggy pants is going to pay for your retirement… ? [Y]ou’re digging your own grave … [a]ll that’s missing is the worm from the tequila bottle to go with it.
And this, allegedly from a local AM station:
On September 1, 2007, on KGEZ-AM in Montana, John Stokes advocated that those who do not speak English should have their hands chopped off. He went on to pontificate that ‘Romans 15: 19 says that if they break into your country, chop off their leg. We have to forcibly get rid of them!’ These statements clearly urge listeners to regard all Latinos—including their fellow citizens—as ‘enemies’ and suitable objects of physical violence. [Editor’s note: The Book of Romans, by the way, says nothing about leg chopping; and needless to say our Jon Stokes had nothing to do with this commentary].
As for the Internet, NHMC notes that at, at the time of the petition, inputting "I hate spics" into Google.com generated over 45,000 results. Of the first fifty, about 65 percent led to pages containing hateful messages found on chat boards, blogs, and social networking sites.
The more recent group statement in support of NHMC’s request links this problem to the lack of localism and the consolidation of radio and television.
"Numerous studies find that people of color continue to be under-represented, stereotyped or misrepresented in both news and entertainment programming," the organizations write. "Indeed, media consolidation leads to a less diverse, less responsive, less responsible media."
Collecting this hate speech data would be helpful, they conclude, "even if the Commission does nothing more than turn that information over to the public, researchers and other government entities." The probe will allow groups like NHMC "to hold the media accountable." It will encourage media organizations to correct their mistakes. And it will help researchers better understand the "effects of hate speech in media and the correlation between hate speech and hate crimes."
Benefits and costs
We share these groups’ concerns about the current media environment and appreciate their emphasis on non-regulatory solutions. And we have a lot of respect for the NHMC, one of the few prominent minority media organizations that supports the FCC’s proposed open Internet rules.
But we still hope that the Commission dodges this bullet. It will bring upon the agency a world of pain, dragging it into a quagmire of accusatory politics at a time when the FCC faces a host of crucial regulatory tasks.
Before jumping into this project, the FCC should assess the benefits and costs of launching such a probe. The payoff will obviously be some kind of government summation on hate speech in the media. That, we presume, is what NHMC is hoping for when the group mentioned that it has also asked the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to follow up on its 1993 report, The Role of Telecommunications in Hate Crimes, "and to work in conjunction with the FCC in these efforts."
No doubt the new opus will satisfy those already convinced that there is a problem, although just like the NTIA study and the FCC’s 2007 report on violence in broadcasting, it will likely cite scholarship questioning any direct links between speech and violence.
Beyond that, the document will probably accomplish little more than those earlier surveys—unless you regard the current media environment as progress.
Now for the costs.
First, none of the media targets of these petitions will believe that NHMC doesn’t want some kind of direct or indirect regulation, especially if they fear that the materials served up by this inquiry could be used as fodder for advertiser boycotts similar to the one that drove Lou Dobbs from CNN.
And why shouldn’t they come to that conclusion after they’ve read this footnote to the Free Press et al commentary about making the media more accountable:
"This sort of awareness-raising has worked in the past. On November 11, 2009, under mounting pressure from organizations and individuals across the nation, Lou Dobbs resigned from CNN. Presente.org was one of the key coordinators of the far-reaching BastaDobbs.com effort, collecting over 100,000 signatures from concerned individuals. That effort was only possible because communities across the country were aware of Dobbs’ tirades, but organizations such as Presente.org and NHMC do not have the resources to monitor the growing number of vitriolic media personalities."
Second, this inquiry will leave the FCC with the daunting task of cataloguing every conceivable kind of hate speech, including those directed at Republicans and right wing talk show hosts, in order to avoid the appearance of having run a political proceeding.
Third, the Commission will have to sort out which of the plethora of examples it receives are hate speech. On which data pile will complaints about harsh criticisms of Israel or Muslims land? How about misogynist hip-hop tunes? What about Internet pornography, especially the rough kind? All we can say is, good luck with that.
Fourth, despite claims to the contrary, such a proceeding will further burden the media reform movement with the perception that its campaigns for more localism and against broadcast media consolidation are really calls for back-door Fairness Doctrine-style content regulation. Again, why shouldn’t critics draw this inference, when the supporters of this inquiry link the hate speech problem to those very themes?
Finally, why would the FCC want to run an inquiry on Internet content at a time when, in pursuit of revised net neutrality rules, its chair is trying to convince the public that the agency doesn’t want to regulate Internet content?
This proposed investigation will lead the Commission down a landmine-laced road at a time when it has taken on more challenges than ever, including net neutrality, getting broadband to rural and low income America, spectrum reallocation, and a new IP video policy. And watching the probe would be a polarized Congress up for mid-term elections, its members itching to run with any tirade that will get them on cable TV.
In sum, this is a well-meaning idea whose time, we hope, has not come.
© 2010 Condé Nast Digital