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House Hearing On Media Disinformation: Democratic Lawmakers Defend Letters Sent To TV Distributors About Fox News And Other Outlets

Ted Johnson
·8-min read

THIRD UPDATE, 11:38 AM PT: Two Democrats defended a letter they sent to a dozen cable, satellite and streaming companies, in which they asked whether they would continue to carry Fox News, One America News Network and Newsmax.

“The First Amendment, my friends, start with four words: Congress shall make no laws,” Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) said during a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on disinformation. “So those of you who may not have read the letters, I suggest that you do.”

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In the letters, Eshoo and Rep. Jerry McEnerney (D-CA) express their concerns of the spread of misinformation at right-wing media outlets, and ask the TV distributors to answer a series of questions, including whether they plan to continue carrying the channels.

“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?” they asked.

Republicans blasted the Democrats for sending the letters, arguing it was an attempt to chill speech that they disliked. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), the top Republican on the committee, said that it was a “dangerous escalation” and suggested that it would lead to a revival of the Fairness Doctrine, a defunct law that once required broadcasters to provide a balance of different points of view.

“Combating disinformation is a shared goal, but we do not want to follow the lead of authoritarian country,” she said.

McEnerney said that the letter reflected concerns over disinformation about Covid-19 and the 2020 presidential election. Eshoo said that the Congressional Research Service saw “no First Amendment red flags in the letters whatsoever,” and she said that what they were doing was merely asking questions.

“Now I don’t know, Mr. Turley, if you find this so chilling that it is actually glacial for Congress to ask strong, important questions. I think we owe that to Miss Urquiza,” she said. She was referring to two of the witnesses: Jonathan Turley, the law professor who criticized the letter as an assault on free speech, and Danielle Urquiza, who said that some media outlets that gave a platform for misinformation about Covid-19 were “complicit” in the death of her father from the virus.

Later, Turley said that asking questions of media companies achieves the same result as applying government pressure.

“Making a statement and putting a question mark at the end of it doesn’t change the import of the statement,” he said, noting that the letter was focused on right-leaning outlets.

SECOND UPDATE, 10:54 AM PT: One of those testifying at today’s House subcommittee hearing on media disinformation was Kristin Danielle Urquiza, the co-founder of a non-profit called Marked By COVID. Her father died of the virus, and she pinned the blame on misinformation spread by Donald Trump and what she described as his media “enablers.”

Her father’s “media of choice,” she said, was Fox News and KTAR News 92.3 in Phoenix. She did not cite statement made by personalities employed by the outlets, but said that they allowed misinformation about the virus to fester.

“This should not have happened; it did not have to be this way,” she said in her testimony. “The president and his enablers lied repeatedly. That disinformation was allowed to litter the airways and created the exact right conditions for the virus to thrive and for hundreds of thousands of people to pass away needlessly. I said it earlier, and I’ll repeat it. The media didn’t pull the trigger, but they drove the getaway car.”

When Trump spoke at a rally at her father’s workplace in Phoenix on May 5, her father listened to the president, along with Governor Doug Ducey. Her father told her, “Kristin, why would they say it’s safe to reopen if it’s not safe. Why would the Governor or the President say that if it is not safe?”

Fox News was sued over its coronavirus coverage by a Washington public interest group, but the lawsuit was tossed in May. Early on during the outbreak, some of its personalities downplayed the virus, while others, like Tucker Carlson, sounded the alarm.

UPDATE, 10:16 AM PT: Soledad O’Brien, appearing at a House subcommittee on disinformation, gave a simple solution to the spread of misinformation in mainstream media: Don’t book liars.

“Cover the facts that lies and propaganda are being disseminated, but do not book people to lie on your show because it elevates and presents a lie as another side,” she said.

She cited what Rand Corporation CEO Michael Rich has referred to as “truth decay,” or “the diminishing role of facts and analysis in public life.”

“Media, disguised as journalism, has been spreading lies for years, elevating liars and using the ensuing slugfest to chase ratings, hits, subscriptions, advertisers,” she said.

She said that a problem is a mentality that there are both sides even to established facts.

“Something you get the sense that truth is unknowable. That is incorrect,” she said.

She cited ProPublica and Report for America as outlets that have been doing exceptional journalism, but the problem is that “there are not enough of them.” But she also said that a factor in the spread of disinformation has been the decline in local journalism, with citizens increasingly turning to social media for their news diet.

Later, O’Brien also made it clear that she was not singling out Fox News among the news channels for her criticisms, but other outlets like MSNBC and CNN.

Jonathan Turley, professor of The George Washington University Law School, said that he agreed with O’Brien in the need for trustworthy news sources where viewers can make their own decisions.

PREVIOUSLY: Less than two months after a Capitol siege motivated by false claims that Donald Trump had his election stolen from him, a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee is tackling the question of what role mainstream media plays in the spread of disinformation and even extremism.

A big focus of today’s hearing, though, likely will be a letter sent by two Democrats, Anna Eshoo and Jerry McEnerney of California, to a dozen cable, satellite and streaming distributors. They ask them a series of questions about Fox News, Newsmax, One America News Network and other outlets, and whether they plan to continue to carry them, in light of the misinformation that guests and on-air personalities spread on their platforms, particularly about the election and Covid-19.

That quickly drew cries of a First Amendment foul by some of the outlets, as well as an FCC commissioner Brendan Carr, the industry group the Media Institute and journalists like Glenn Greenwald. Jonathan Turley, professor at The George Washington University Law School and a witness at the hearing, wrote in his prepared remarks, “From the perspectives of free speech and the free press, the letter is not just chilling; it is positively glacial.”

Republicans, led by ranking subcommittee member Bob Latta (R-OH), are likely to also criticize the letter and, as they have done when the topic was disinformation on tech platforms, argue that the problem is the increasing “cancel culture” of the left. Of course, as disconcerting as the Eshoo-McEnerney letter to the distributors may be, the past four years saw a president who routinely called the press the enemy of the people, threatened antitrust action against outlets and suggested that regulators should look at the license of NBC because of an unfavorable news report. Most of the GOP, as well as Republicans on the FCC, avoided commenting on Donald Trump’s tweets as best they could.

That doesn’t mean that there is not a real issue with government officials pressuring media outlets. In her prepared testimony, Soledad O’Brien, a veteran of cable news who now hosts the syndicated Matter of Fact, wrote, “Let me be clear. Congress can’t, and shouldn’t, regulate journalism in defiance of the First Amendment.” But she is also scathing in her assessment of the cable news landscape in particular, starting with Lou Dobbs and his early days of “demonizing” undocumented immigrants while he was at CNN.

“Media disguised as journalism has been spreading lies for years, elevating liars, and using the ensuing slugfest to chase ratings, hits, subscriptions and advertisers,” O’Brien wrote. “Period. Fullstop.”

She added that “the elevation of liars has accelerated, with radio, broadcast and cable TV in particular, repeating and reenergizing lies that harm all of us. The bombast that accompanies these lies, has also set the stage for an alarmingly xenophobic and racist narrative that has taken hold in this country.”

What is different is the hearing’s focus on disinformation in traditional media, which has largely been on the sidelines, often with a sense of schadenfreude, as Capitol Hill has focused on tech platforms. Those hearings have often degenerated into a kind of partisan warfare, with Democrats arguing that more should be done to control disinformation and Republicans complaining that Silicon Valley has done too much, in that it has a bias against conservatives. That likely will be a preview of what is to come today.

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