It has been approximately forty years since the U.S. Supreme Court found the Fairness Doctrine constitutional and approximately twenty years since the Federal Communications Commission (the “FCC”) eliminated it. The Fairness Doctrine provided that the broadcasters were required to air important issues and to make sure that the other side of the issue was also covered. In 1969 in Red Lion, the U.S. States Supreme Court found the Fairness Doctrine constitutional under the First Amendment.
In the late 1980s, the FCC decided that because of the increase in the number of broadcast stations, cable outlets, magazines, and at that time the potential for the Internet that the audience could get information from a variety of sources, and the Fairness Doctrine was no longer needed. In Syracuse Peace Council, the D.C. Circuit found that the FCC had the power to eliminate the Fairness Doctrine, but the Court failed to address the First Amendment issues.
Since 1987, the media landscape has also distinctly changed by increased consolidation. As result, the major broadcast corporations, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox are vertically integrated platforms often including production studios, cable stations, broadcast stations, music companies, and book publishers. Ownership limits have been deregulated to allow broadcasters to have an audience reach of 39% of households. The FCC has also been waging a battle to allow for cross ownership of newspapers by broadcasters.
Given increased cross ownership connections, the increased demand for broadcast content, the concomitant decrease in broadcast news personnel, and the demise of the broadcast fairness doctrine, the broadcasters have increased the airing of tabloid stories. This has occurred because news divisions have become profit centers in which the broadcasters and the cable companies are almost solely interested in increasing ratings of their news shows to increase advertising dollars. Competition causes the news divisions to seek tabloid celebrity stories and to cover them more intensely for longer periods in order to attract larger audiences.
The media ecology is now set up in a manner that “nudges” media audiences to consume the tabloid cookies and candy as opposed to the public interest broccoli. The Fairness Doctrine “nudged” both the media and the audience to consume information necessary for our democracy. Without that “nudge” and in fact with a “nudge” in the opposite direction, the media now broadcast and the audience consumes vast amounts of tabloid fare, instead of information that would be healthier for the American democracy.
This article examines why and how the media cover female celebrities and other women whose tragic stories are thrust into the public consciousness. The article focuses on obvious female celebrities like Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, and Anna Nicole Smith, as well as those tragic women thrust into the national spotlight that lost their lives to male assailants such as Laci Peterson, Chandra Levy, and Natalee Holloway. The common thread that binds all these women together is that they are young, white and reasonably attractive.
The anxiety over white women resonates in our popular culture. For instance, the “Perils of Pauline,” serves as a historical touchtone to the current media coverage of these celebrities and other women thrust into the media spotlight. This serial was a silent film, which included “archetypal cliffhangers” that involved a leading woman character, Pauline, who each week encountered danger. Like the Perils of Pauline, the media seize on tabloid stories of white women because they resonate with the public. They increase the media’s ratings, and they allow the media to cross market their products across their different media platforms. By hyping these women, the media create an echo effect across a variety of media platforms that actually sell these women’s tragic stories. The white women in peril become big business dominating coverage in tabloid as well as mainstream media.
This focus is possible because of the demise of the Fairness Doctrine, the deregulation of the media industry, and the consolidated ownership of different media platforms by one or a few owners. A story is transported along a particular media company’s own network. People magazine is a major node in this celebrity network, selling over 35 million issues per week. It is owned by Time Warner, which also owns CNN. So this is the major “jump off” from tabloid to legitimate news is through this connection. The “jump off” can also begin in celebrity-focused website such as TMZ also owned by Time Warner and then emerge on CNN or other network news shows. The story can eventually be made in a television movie on an affiliated network, or an E! True Hollywood Story or be published as a book. Like a virus, the increased coverage can migrate to rival media networks. Meanwhile this tabloid virus crowds out the coverage of “real” news stories about matters of public importance that the Fairness Doctrine was designed to encourage. This over-emphasis on tabloid stories makes the public less well informed and cheapens our democracy.
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