Last week, more than 50 million people watched as 75-year-old Martin Gugino was shoved to the ground by Buffalo police officers, who proceeded to leave him bleeding on the sidewalk—before falsely claiming the peaceful protester had simply tripped.
As Gugino recovers in the hospital, his experience has become fodder for conspiracy theorists thanks to a false statement by the President of the United States.
“Buffalo protester shoved by Police could be an ANTIFA provocateur,” Trump tweeted on Monday morning. “75 year old Martin Gugino was pushed away after appearing to scan police communications in order to black out the equipment. @OANN I watched, he fell harder than was pushed. Was aiming scanner. Could be a set up?”
Absolutely nothing in that Tweet was true. Antifa isn’t a formal organization, Gugino isn’t a member, and he wasn’t attacking police communications (he was holding a cell phone, not a “scanner”). The conspiracy theory wasn’t even an original idea. Trump was simply repeating something he’d seen on his favorite cable news channel, One America News Network (OANN).
](https://twitter.com/MattGertz/status/1270335685514403840?s=20)The reporter in question, previously employed by the Kremlin-owned news outlet Sputnik, was in turn parroting false claims first pushed by an anonymous blogger.
OANN has been routinely under fire for its extremely pro-Trump slant and airing of conspiracy theories, banning any polls that don’t show Donald Trump doing well, and even falsely claiming that the novel coronavirus was manufactured in a government lab in North Carolina as part of a diabolical plot.
The channel is the 2013 brain child of right-wing millionaire Robert Herring Sr., who made his fortune printing circuit boards. Despite relatively low ratings, the channel has seen increased attention thanks to a President who routinely hypes some of its most outrageous stories.
Cable operators contacted by Motherboard weren’t keen to discuss why they continue to carry a "news" channel whose relationship to journalism is fleeting at best. Verizon, DirecTV, and AT&T did not respond to a request for comment.
Victor Pickard, an American media studies scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, told Motherboard the rise of networks like OANN is the result of decades of failed U.S. media policies, resulting in a corporate-dominated ad and impression-driven media ecosystem run amok.
“The US suffers under the worst of multiple worlds in terms of its media,” Pickard said. “We are typically at the mercy of unregulated, profit-driven media firms with only weak public alternatives. Most of the public interest protections we once had—such as the fairness doctrine—are long gone.”
The fairness doctrine was a U.S. media policy introduced in 1949, requiring that the holders of broadcast licenses present controversial issues of public importance in a manner that is honest, equitable, and balanced. In 1987 the requirement was eliminated by Republican Senators who claimed the regulations were “outdated.”
But the rules also faced widespread bipartisan criticism from those worried about the government dictating what is, or isn’t, “balanced” coverage.
“Who gets to decide when coverage is fair—the Trump administration? The Pai FCC?” Matt Wood, General Counsel at consumer group Free Press, told Motherboard.
“The doctrine could be weaponized to require hearing from the putative both sides on systemic racism, climate change, and other topics where there really is no legitimate debate,” Wood added. “We saw how disastrous that kind of thinking can be just last week when the New York Times published Tom Cotton's fascist op-ed.”
Lawyer and tech policy expert Harold Feld told Motherboard that even if the fairness doctrine still existed today, it wouldn’t have covered OANN.
“OANN is a cable network,” Feld said. “The fairness doctrine applied strictly to broadcast.”
Wary of running afoul of the First Amendment, U.S. leaders have generally tried to focus on policies that encourage competition between channels and cable providers. But these too have been inconsistent—and routinely dismantled by lobbying and the courts.
“But even when the FCC has tried to enforce these, the courts have been increasingly hostile to any effort to regulate cable,” Feld said. “I'm very pessimistic there is anything to be done from a policy perspective,” he added.
Pickard noted that not only have U.S. leaders failed to rein in disinformation, the government has routinely ignored the impact media consolidation has on the diversity and quality of journalism, especially in local broadcasting. That the public is now awash in conspiracy theories and highly partisan takes presented as hard news should not be surprising, he said.
“Years of increased media ownership concentration and so-called ‘deregulation’ have left us ill-prepared to contest mis and disinformation in our news media,” Pickard warned. “Until we move beyond this corporate libertarian paradigm for media regulation and/or build out a strong public option that will help keep the commercial players more honest, it’s hard to imagine how we can rein in such dangerous content."