United States Project

TV viewers have been sending ‘fake news’ complaints to the FCC

April 12, 2017

ON FEBRUARY 3, A TELEVISION VIEWER in southeast Texas submitted a complaint to the Federal Communications Commission about CNN—or, as the complaint’s heading called it, the “Communist News Network.” That complaint read:

Please shut this fake news outlet down bent on terrorizing America with their false narratives promoted by left wing fascist psychopaths.

A few days later, the FCC responded by referring the viewer to its consumer guide on free speech, which explains that the “FCC is barred by law from trying to prevent the broadcast of any point of view.” The response also noted that “no further action is required by the FCC.”

That’s one of 40 records the FCC sent to me recently to fulfill a FOIA request I filed asking for all consumer complaints submitted since October 1, 2016, containing the phrase “fake news,” which took off as an expression that month. It grew out of the 2016 presidential campaign and efforts by propagandists and pranksters to spread fabricated stories to exploit readers’ biases. Trump and his surrogates quickly repurposed the phrase as a cudgel to bash truthful stories and credible outlets they disliked, and eventually “fake news” came to be applied, as Slate’s Will Oremus put it, “to everything from Breitbart News to Donald Trump’s tweets to the media commentary of CNN’s Brian Stelter.”

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That’s evident in the FCC records I received—the varying conceptions of “fake news,” and how they’re employed both as shields and swords, to protect the public discourse and to attack outlets and journalists. Of the 40 complaints, 19 addressed the mainstream media’s reporting as a whole, or focused on that of a supposedly left-leaning outlet, such as CNN or MSNBC. Five others addressed Fox News’ reporting. The rest ran the gamut, and included complaints about the National Enquirer’s presence at supermarket checkouts and the urgent need for the FCC to “drain” Facebook’s “swamp.”

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Although the FCC redacted some details from the complaints (like the filers’ names, addresses, and phone numbers) under the FOIA’s personal privacy exemption, the substance was left alone. Below is a selection of the complaints, each accompanied by its place of origin and the date it was filed. I’ve not edited for grammar, clarity, or typos, but I’ve edited a few for length, taking care not to change their spirit or remove necessary context.

Complaints re: mainstream media, supposedly left-leaning outlets

However, the inclusion of certain sources such as Infowars seems a little extreme if they are not going to include such publications as New York Times or Washington Post

February 15, 2017, South Carolina: The Mainstream Media news outlets are obviously trying to undermine our President and our nation by inundating the public with fake news, misleading stories, and one-sided biased interviews and spokespeople. It is most apparent on CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS, but also print media like the New York Times and Washington Post. For the sake of our nation, I hope you will get them to develop a balanced and unbiased approach to the news they report.

December 10, 2016, Nebraska: All news stations must be censored or fined when they continuously lie, obfuscate and misdirect intentionally. The most egregious of these is CNN, but ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC et al are equally guilty, particularly on the “hands up, don’t shoot” debacle perpetuated across the board. Then there is the abject collusion between so- called “independent” news stations and the DNC during the recent election coverage. Certainly Brian Williams should be banned completely from EVER appearing on a so-called “news” station.

January 12, 2017, Massachusetts: CNN constantly broadcasting fake news and broadcasting news from a agenda point of view…Especially thru the recent presidential election and now daily broadcasting in fact check statements…Notice how I state broadcasting and not reporting, Real reporters deserve full credit when they report the truth! CNN SHOULD BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE.

November 15, 2016, Colorado: With Google and Facebook’s announcement of no longer allowing “fake news” or “propaganda” to appear in AdSense. That is completely understandable and somewhat commendable that they are attempting to stop the spread of biased or untrue news. However, the inclusiOn of certain sources such as Infowars seems a little extreme if they are not going to include such publications as New York Times or Washington Post. There are several editorials that are not clearly marked as such that the mainstream news networks such as CBS and NBC then air on their various news programs as if it is news and not opinion. This move by Facebook and Google feels like discrimination to me.

March 15, 2017, Michigan: Yesterday Rachel Maddow aired on 9pm eastern on MSNBC stolen tax return of President Donald Trump. I believe both news organizations are publishing fake news, stolen tax records and are no longer serving the public interest. As a tax payer I am requesting the FCC to have a full investigation of these licenses for violations of any FCC rules or regulations governing their transmissions. It is my belief that they are no longer serving the public interest.

Complaints re: Fox News

It is even more worrisome that Fox News refuses retracting the story and apologize

February 20, 2017, Oregon: The Fox news network has been generating fake news for many years. Fox is no better than a tabloid network. Example 1: Greg Phillips has claimed, without substantiation, that Donald Trump won the popular vote in the 2016 Presidential election by over 3,000,000 votes. In addition, Phillips claims that these votes came from ‘illegal’ aliens…Example 2: On a Tucker Carlson show a clip of a film by Ami Horowitz blamed immigrants to Sweden as causing violence. The allegations by Horowitz have been debunked…Fox should be required to issue retractions for every single fake ‘news’ item. Additionally, Fox should be required to dismiss each and every single person who created fake ‘news’, and fine the network appropriately. Next, Fox should be required to hire an independent agent who will review news items for truth and accuracy and has option to cancel news article. Finally, Fox will be placed on warning that should any further broadcast of fake ‘news’ without immediate retraction or correction will result in the revocation of their license to operate.

March 10, 2017, Illinois: This week Fox News went out of their way to support expert on Swedish National Security, who is a convicted fellon. They gave him a job title that does not exist and Nils Bildt himself have stated that it was a Fox News Editor who decided to give him that title…The man is not a Swedish National Security Advisor, he does not live in Sweden and he is not affiliated in any way what so ever with the government or intelligence in Sweden…It is worrisome when news stations deliberately create fake stories to help their own agenda. We need to be able to trust the news. It is even more worrisome that Fox News refuses retracting the story and apologize…After this incidence we have seen a rise in violence against ethnic minorities and has participated in causing incidences such as the shooting of an indian man in Kansas the day after.

Other complaints

Their only response is that it makes them money, people demand it.

November, 22, 2016, Florida: [With the header “National Enquirer at Publix checkouts”]: I have complained for several weeks to various CSRs, store managers, District Managers, a buyer, but no one can tell me why they are contractually obligated to display fake news immediately adjacent to the cashier. Their only response is that it makes them money, people demand it. I can give full details in e-mail.

February 21, 2017, Arizona: …Face Book with out any warning will block who ever they choose and even if you are not in violation of their policies, they will block as they feel…They also “filter” likes and comments. Mark Zuckerberg was a Hillary fan and in the beginning of the presidential race, Trump used to get 10,000 likes an hour while Hillary got a few thousand? Towards the end, Trump would get a few hundred a day and Hillary would get thousands. Zuckerberg donated $17 million to Hillary which I call collusion and conspiracy and if she won, my belief he would have control of the Internet. There was and is endless fake news on FB. Much of it made up against Trump by FB, Hillary and the democratic party. I really feel that the FCC needs to investigate Face Book & Zuckerberg and drain that swamp.

December 30, 2016, North Carolina: [Linking to a story on “The Smarter Shoppers” site]: The site masquerades as a Forbes news site. However the URL and lofty claims reveal otherwise. This is a fake news site with an “article” about a dietary supplement taken by billionaires to help boost memory and IQ. My 75 year old father told me about this site and the memory boosting pill Bill Gates touted in Forbes. I explained it was a fake news site. Why is this not regulated?


FOR ITS PART, THE FCC RESPONDED to all of the complaints. Some responses explained that the FCC didn’t have jurisdiction over certain matters (e.g., those involving social media practices as well as non-broadcast content distributed over cable). Others said the agency needed more information to investigate. A number noted that for a complaint to be actionable it “must relate to particular programming, rather than express a general opinion.” And for a few, such as the “memory boosting pill” story, the FCC urged the complainant to contact a state consumer protection agency or the Federal Trade Commission, which regulates unfair and deceptive business practices.

In the complaints, “fake news” is a problem for government to solve (through an agency that has struggled to create and enforce coherent rules in numerous areas), and it’s so boundless a concept that it lacks real meaning. It refers to sources that fabricate or distort information with the intent to mislead; that have or appear to have a point of view, especially a disagreeable one; and that traffic in gossip or unverified claims. In other words, “fake news” looks here as it does elsewhere in the media ecosystem: a concept sorely lacking a uniform usage.

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Jonathan Peters is CJR’s press freedom correspondent. He is a media law professor at the University of Georgia, with posts in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication and the School of Law. Peters has blogged on free expression for the Harvard Law & Policy Review, and he has written for Esquire, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, Slate, The Nation, Wired, and PBS. Follow him on Twitter @jonathanwpeters.