Two Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and Jerry McNerney (D-CA), sent form letters to CEOs of major cable and technology companies questioning whether they will continue to carry news outlets like Fox and other conservative networks. The 13 companies who received the Feb. 22 letters are; AT&T, Verizon, Roku, Amazon, Apple, Comcast, Charter Communications, DISH Network, Cox Communications, Altice USA, Alphabet Inc., and HULU.
The Democrats released the Feb. 22 memo previewing the upcoming Feb. 24 hearing on the matter, entitled “Fanning the Flames: Disinformation and Extremism in the Media.” The committee alleges that "while much of the blame has been placed on the widespread disinformation on social media platforms, industry participants have also noted that broadcast and cable outlets have played a role in the spread of disinformation." They contend that the pandemic and the events on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6 have accelerated the spread of disinformation and viewers are now "often confused as to whether the content they see is news or opinion, which can result in confusion and undermine public confidence in the press." They cite, for example, a July 2020 article from MediaMatters that reported that Fox News "repeated coronavirus misinformation 253 times in its weekday coverage from July 6 through 10."
Notably, AllSides rates MediaMatters as far Left-leaning in its bias. The site features its own "patented bias rating technology," but it also uses a "community feedback" rating scale to help improve the accuracy of its ratings. The site rates media for over 800 sources of information.
A separate but related hearing is planned for Feb. 25, called by Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle (D-PA), and Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee Chair Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) concerning "misinformation and disinformation plaguing online platforms." Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey will testify. The press release for the tech giant hearing reads as follows:
“Whether it be falsehoods about the COVID-19 vaccine or debunked claims of election fraud, these online platforms have allowed misinformation to spread, intensifying national crises with real-life, grim consequences for public health and safety,” the chairs said. “This hearing will continue the Committee’s work of holding online platforms accountable for the growing rise of misinformation and disinformation. For far too long, big tech has failed to acknowledge the role they’ve played in fomenting and elevating blatantly false information to its online audiences. Industry self-regulation has failed. We must begin the work of changing incentives driving social media companies to allow and even promote misinformation and disinformation.”
Eshoo and McNerney's letters open with statements alleging that the public discourse is rife with "misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories, and lies." The committee members maintain that such disinformation "undergird[s] the radicalization of seditious individuals who committed acts of insurrection on January 6th, and it contributes to a growing distrust of public health measures necessary to crush the pandemic."
Eshoo and McNerney
They point to cable and technology companies as significant influencers of the public, given their findings from recent research suggesting that "nearly half of Americans get their news primarily from TV." They also report that experts say that "the right-wing media ecosystem is 'much more susceptible…to disinformation, lies, and half-truths.'" The letter states that Fox News, for example, "has spent years spewing misinformation about American politics."
The letter poses seven questions to the providers, with a response requested by Mar. 8. A screenshot of the questions can be found below:
The First Amendment says that "Congress shall make no laws abridging the freedom of speech." There are some limited exceptions to this detailed in a congressional research paper written by Kathleen Anne Ruane in 2014. Those exceptions include, but are not limited to, "obscenity, fighting words, child pornography, defamation, and public employees' speech."
Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr released a statement on Monday slamming the Democrats' efforts as a "chilling transgression" of free speech:
“Today, two senior Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee selectively targeted a handful of news media outlets for their coverage of political events. By writing letters to the cable providers and other regulated entities that carry these news media outlets, the Democrats are sending a message that is as clear as it is troubling—these regulated entities will pay a price if the targeted newsrooms do not conform to Democrats’ preferred political narratives. This is a chilling transgression of the free speech rights that every media outlet in this country enjoys."
Carr went on to say that the letters are an example of government overreach and represent a "marked departure from First Amendment norms." He added, "Your demand to know the 'moral principles' that guide a private entity’s decision about what news to carry cannot be reconciled with bedrock principles of free speech and journalistic freedom."