House Democrats Query TV Channel Distributors Over Carriage Of “Misinformation Rumor Mills” Fox News, Newsmax And OAN

An image from the Capitol siege on Jan. 6. (Photo by Lev Radin/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

Two prominent House Democrats have fired off a letter to AT&T, Comcast and Amazon and other channel distributors, asking them whether they plan to continue carrying Fox News, One America News Network and Newsmax.

In the letter, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-CA) single out the networks as “misinformation rumor mills and conspiracy theory hotbeds that produce content that leads to real harm.”

“Misinformation on TV has led to our current polluted information environment that radicalizes individuals to commit seditious acts and rejects public health best practices, among other issues in our public discourse,” they wrote in the letters. (Read them here). The letter was sent to 12 cable, satellite and streaming companies.

The lawmakers added that “to our knowledge, the cable, satellite, and over-the-top companies that disseminate these media outlets to American viewers have done nothing in response to the misinformation aired by these outlets.”

Eshoo and McNerney are members of the House Energy & Commerce’s Communications and Technology Subcommittee, which on Wednesday is holding a hearing on the spread of disinformation and extremism on traditional media platforms, including broadcast and cable networks.

A Fox News Media spokesperson said in a statement, “As the most watched cable news channel throughout 2020, Fox News Media provided millions of Americans with in-depth reporting, breaking news coverage and clear opinion. For individual members of Congress to highlight political speech they do not like and demand cable distributors engage in viewpoint discrimination sets a terrible precedent.” On election night, the network was the first to call Arizona for Joe Biden, and declared him the winner later in the week. In the weeks before and after the election, Donald Trump attacked Fox News and encouraged Twitter followers to turn to Newsmax and OAN.

In a statement, Newsmax said, “The House Democrats’ attack on free speech and basic First Amendment rights should send chills down the spines of all Americans. Newsmax reported fairly and accurately on allegations and claims made by both sides during the recent election contest. We did not see that same balanced coverage when CNN and MSNBC pushed for years the Russian collusion hoax, airing numerous claims and interviews with Democrat leaders that turned out to be patently false.”

A spokesperson for OAN did not immediately return requests for comment.

The chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) wrote a memo in which he cited a series of incidents in recent months, including those related to the 2020 presidential election and the subsequent siege on the Capitol siege, as well as the spread of false claims about the Covid-19 crisis.

“It was only after the Capitol riots, and after five people were killed and over 100 wounded, that one radio group which airs programming from many popular talk radio hosts who regularly spread disinformation, distributed a memo telling on-air personalities to stop claiming that the election was stolen,”  he wrote. “On facing legal action, some cable media outlets have aired segments retracting election fraud claims that were made on their networks. Similarly, after facing backlash, a particular broadcast media conglomerate canceled the airing of a segment that claimed Dr. Anthony Fauci helped to create COVID-19, though, this outlet continued to air other disinformation about the pandemic.” The latter was a reference to a segment on Sinclair’s America The Week with Eric Bolling. The show was recently dropped.

Those scheduled to testify at Wednesday’s hearing include Soledad O’Brien, anchor of the syndicated Matter of Fact; Emily Bell, professor of journalism at Columbia University; Kristin Danielle Urquiza, co-founder of Marked by Covid; and Jonathan Turley, professor at The George Washington University Law School.

In their letter, Eshoo and McNerney ask the TV distributors if they planned to continue carrying the channels. Other questions include:

— “What moral or ethical principles (including those related to journalistic integrity, violence, medical information, and public health) do you apply in deciding which channels to carry or when to take adverse actions against a channel?”

— “What steps did you take prior to, on, and following the November 3, 2020 elections and the January 6, 2021 attacks to monitor, respond to, and reduce the spread of disinformation, including encouragement or incitement of violence by channels your company disseminates to millions of Americans? Please describe each step that you took and when it was taken.”

— “Have you taken any adverse actions against a channel, including Fox News, Newsmax, and OANN, for using your platform to disseminate disinformation related directly or indirectly to the November 3, 2020 elections, the January 6, 2021 Capitol insurrection, or COVID-19 misinformation? If yes, please describe each action, when it was taken, and the parties involved.”

In asking whether the distributors will continue to carry the networks, the lawmakers end their query by asking, “If so, why?”

The letter drew criticism not just from the media outlets, but some journalists, like Glenn Greenwald, who said that it was an attempt to censor by using “bullying tactics.”

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, a Republican, attacked the Democrats’ letter as “a chilling transgression of free speech rights that every media outlet in this country enjoys.”

Carr has been a high-profile critic of tech companies for the way that they have moderated their content, and supported a Trump administration effort to have the FCC clarify when a platform could claim Section 230 immunity for removing posts. Trump signed an executive order last year to target Section 230, which gives immunity to tech companies for the way that they handle content, after Twitter started placing fact-checking labels on some of his posts.

Tech platforms have said that such efforts to “clarify” or reform the law run afoul of the First Amendment, while one of Carr’s Republican colleagues, Michael O’Rielly, last year expressed doubts about a review of Section 230 and suggested that it could lead to a “Fairness Doctrine” for the Internet. After O’Rielly’s criticisms, the Trump administration pulled his nomination for another term on the commission.

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