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Upholding the Public Trust

September 14th, 2020 by dk

The presidential campaign will consume Americans’ attention for the next two months. Debates begin in less than four weeks. Media companies can do extraordinary work to meet a deadline. They have only a few dozen days to reset their broadcast practices. They must learn new ways to enforce the community standards that inform them.

Broadcasters lease the public airwaves. This arrangement has always required them to uphold certain community standards. A code of ethics was broadly applied to the entire industry. For many years, certain behaviors and words were not allowed over the public airwaves.

This is not censorship. Maintaining standards, understood in advance and applied in all situations, is integral to the public trust. Freedom of speech should have no practical limits, but amplification carries certain responsibilities. If there’s a microphone involved, standards must be upheld.

Even and especially when a speaker won’t abide by the standards, the broadcasters must — even if that speaker is a candidate for or the current president of the United States. Granted, it’s not a good look to be turning off the microphone of the most powerful person on the planet, but decorum shouldn’t eclipse decency.

Broadcasters have tried to uphold standards for truth and honesty, but real-time fact-checking is usually impossible and always ineffective. Debunking a lie requires first repeating it, focusing attention on the false assertion, further amplifying its reach.

Instead, media companies must expand their skill set. They must learn to avert their gaze. Most media companies do not allow reporters and camerapersons to film a premeditated, ongoing crime. They are trained instead to call authorities and do what they can ethically to prevent the crime.

You’ve never seen a hostage-taker negotiate his demands over the public airwaves with a news team inside, broadcasting an “exclusive scoop.” This is why.

I grew up watching the Chicago Cubs play baseball on TV. If a fan jumped onto Wrigley Field and interrupted the game, security would corral and remove the overly exuberant fan. At least that’s what I assume happened, because broadcasters refused to show the intruder scampering across the outfield.

The same lesson applies here.

Republicans made hash of the Hatch Act during their convention. From the White House, their candidate taunted his adversary (and the media) by bragging about their willful violation: “The fact is, we’re here and they’re not.”

Media companies knew in advance that the administration intended to use the White House as a campaign backdrop. Their legal council could have told them the Hatch Act would be violated. If this event amounted to a premeditated crime, they had ample time to inform the campaign that their cameras wouldn’t be attending.

Likewise, debate moderators have time to inform both campaigns about real-time consequences for misbehavior. Both candidates could be given a list of misstatements they have made on the campaign that have been determined to be false or misleading. “Repeat any of these untruths, and your microphone will be turned off for 90 seconds.”

All sides hope for clarity in November. News outlets must demand clarity and reject confusions from the candidates.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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