There was plenty of partisan sniping of double standards and whataboutism at today’s House subcommittee hearing on disinformation. As Democrats fume over the role of right-wing media disinformation in the Capitol siege, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) reminded of the 2017 attack on a Republican softball practice, in which he was severely wounded by a man who was reportedly a big consumer of left-wing media.
A key takeaway, though, was on the ever-more blurred lines between news and opinion on cable news networks, in which consumers turn to their preferred echo chambers and grow ever more distrustful of media figures outside of it. The point was brought up several times during the day by lawmakers of both parties. And while it is certainly not a new phenomenon, the Capitol siege, driven by a combination of rage and disinformation, has put this type of information diet in a new light.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) bemoaned “traditional news reporting devolve into opinion reporting,” with a reliance on personalities.
“Some of these personalities will start out a segment by reporting the top lines of a current event, but then they quickly transition and spend more time giving their political hot take on a matter,” he said.
He said “there is plenty of evidence to fearmongering and fomenting anger drives engagement and ratings,” ulitmately creating a “culture of fear and clickbait to get attention.” While freedom of speech and expression are most important for democracy, “I worry that we are crossing over into yelling fire into a crowded theater if it is this dangerous.”
He asked one of the witnesses, Jonathan Turley of The George Washington University Law School, about the “legal ways to curb disinformation and protect the First Amendment.”
“What do you think of having to make it clear to their audience when their segments are opinion versus fact?”
“There is a blurring that has occurred,” Turley said. “If you go past 6 o’clock on most cable networks, you are pretty much in the realm of opinion today, and it does blur.”
He added, “Let’s be honest: Rage is addictive. We are a nation addicted to rage. People complain about how tired they are and how they wish they could get beyond this, but I don’t see any evidence of it. People are addicted to rage. And they are using that rage to silence others or blame others and it is ripping this country apart.”
Mandating “opinion vs. fact” labels would almost assuredly run into the same First Amendment concerns that Republicans raised throughout the day. But Kinzinger does highlight what has been an expanding lineup of opinion in primetime, driven by a desire to spike ratings with stronger points of view than the straightway newscast.
Just look at 7 p.m. ET: Fox News recently bumped a newscast from that hour in favor of a rotating group of opinion hosts. MSNBC’s The ReidOut is more of an opinion show than its newsier predecessor, Hardball. CNN’s Erin Burnett OutFront features regular commentary from the host. At the same hour, CNBC’s launch of The News with Shepard Smith was heavily promoted as a show that was opinion free, but it’s had a tough time making a mark in the ratings.
Last year, a study from the Committee to Protect Journalists pointed to another factor in eroding trust: the practice of non-opinion journalists going on opinion shows. “Newspaper reporters often appear as guests, some under paid contract, in these cable news discussion formats, which makes it difficult for viewers to recognize whether they are stating opinions while explaining the news,” wrote the study’s author, Leonard Downie Jr.
A lot of the focus of Republicans was on a letter that two Democrats sent to TV distributors, asking them if they will continue to carry Fox News, Newsmax, One America News and other outlets that are favorites on the right, but some of the witnesses tried to make the case that the problem was not so much hyper partisanship but of ratings. Soledad O’Brien, the host of the syndicated Matter of Fact, called out not just Tucker Carlson and Lou Dobbs, but Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell.
The network personalities “chased ratings and tossed aside objectivity to divide us into these false categories of left and right, manipulating facts and using guests to pique the interest of partisan viewers,” she said in her prepared remarks. “Then they would break into tears or slam their fists on their anchor desks as they debate the liars they booked for their very own shows. Viewers, who come looking for information, instead get enraging contradictory facts to support a bias to the left or right.”
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