House panel to dive into misinformation debate
House lawmakers on Wednesday will examine the role misinformation on cable news played in the Jan. 6 insurrection in a hearing that will test the boundaries between congressional oversight, regulation and issues of censorship.
Representatives of Fox News have already complained about the premise, saying it “sets a terrible precedent” when members of Congress “highlight political speech they do not like.” Newsmax also decried the hearing as “an attack on free speech and basic First Amendment rights,” adding that the event “should send chills down the spines of all Americans.”
While those companies aren’t scheduled to testify Wednesday, when media experts will be providing testimony, some Democratic lawmakers are leaving the door open to bringing in top executives from some of the most prominent cable news networks.
“I wouldn’t rule out additional hearings, that’s for sure,” said Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.), a member of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology. “But you know there are two categories. There are the providers like AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and there are the misinformation channels, like Fox News and OANN and Newsmax.”
McNerney said those companies, along with the cable outlets, need to be called out because of the direct link that exists between what he called the misinformation they distributed and the violence of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
“So I think there’s an ecosystem that is pushing those sorts of lies and half-truths,” he added. “This is the information that’s causing real harm in this country, and the real harm is manifest, right? We had five people killed, we had a hundred people injured and the whole world was watching horror as the seed of democracy in this country was attacked.”
McNerney and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), another member of the communications and technology subcommittee, sent letters Monday to the companies that help distribute cable opinion and news content, including AT&T, Charter, Comcast, Cox, Dish and Verizon, demanding answers on TV “misinformation rumor mills.”
McNerney said he isn’t expecting a response to the letters before March 8, but said the subcommittee might ask to talk to the cable providers as well as representatives from Fox News, Newsmax and OANN.
Lawmakers on Wednesday will hear from media experts such as journalist Soledad O’Brien, host of the Hearst Television political magazine program “Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien” and also formerly of CNN, MSNBC and NBC, and other outlets; Emily Bell, director of The Tow Center for Digital Media at Columbia University; Kristin Urquiza, the co-founder of the group Marked By COVID; and Jonathan Turley, professor at the George Washington University Law School, who is also an opinion contributor to The Hill.
But Fox and Newsmax aren’t the only ones expressing concerns. Commentators on both the left and the right have been critical of the hearing, with some calling it a thinly disguised call for censorship.
By asking cable providers about their content guidelines, or the ethical principles used to decide what channels to carry, McNerney’s and Eshoo’s letter made it clear that the motivation behind the hearing is censorship, journalist and free speech advocate Glenn Greenwald wrote Thursday in his email newsletter.
“In case there was any doubt about their true goal — coercing these cable providers to remove all cable networks that feature conservative voices, including Fox (just as their counterparts on that Committee want to ban right-wing voices from social media) — the House Democrats in their letter said explicitly what they are after,” Greenwald said.
Bradley Smith, founder and head of the conservative group the Institute For Free Speech and a former member of the Federal Election Commission, also called the hearings an attempt to control constitutionally protected speech.
“I’m appalled by this hearing,” Smith said. “I think it’s a rank use of power. McNerney and Eshoo are basically acting as censors and abusing their powers.”
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, blasted Democrats on Wednesday.
“If the Majority was interested in meaningful change, you would not schedule a hyper-partisan hearing to shame and blame. You certainly would not send letters pressuring companies to block conservative media outlets. I am not only disappointed in this hearing, I am deeply troubled by it,” she said in a statement ahead of the hearing.
Still, some leading journalists agree that the hearings are an effort to address real issues of concern and that the media landscape is coming under threat by distrust, misinformation and conspiracy theories.
“There is no question some people at Fox News, OANN and Newsmax, to name three, have not been as diligent and ethical as they should be in explaining what’s happening,” said Matthew Hall, national president of the Society of Professional Journalists.
“And that’s a problem. Disinformation is real, and no self-respecting media outlet should share it without debunking it and even sharing it poses problems. … But as troubling as that is the bottom line is the First Amendment protects news outlets from government oversight,” he added.
It’s also hard, Hall said, to see the hearing as anything but an attempt to regulate speech.
“I don’t even know if it can be called low-level censorship,” he said. “The First Amendment allows news organizations to do their work without government interference and this appears to be government interference. I’m troubled by it.”
For Angie Drobnic Holan, editor in chief of PolitiFact, fighting disinformation is part of her job description.
Congress does have a role, she said, in regulating the cable and broadcast industries. And it may even have a further duty in bringing attention to issues like the role that conspiracy theories played in the insurrection.
“It is tricky. I don’t suggest government action is easy or there is some clear-cut solution,” Holan said. “These issues are tough and need to be balanced against First Amendment freedom. … I’m not saying the government has no role. But what it should be and how it should work should be viewpoint neutral. We don’t want the government refereeing people’s political opinions. Absolutely not.”
At the same time, it’s not clear if the subcommittee plans to take any legislative action.
Both Greenwald — in a similar newsletter about congressional hearings on tech — and Smith argue that the hearings and the letter sent by McNerney and Eshoo may have already violated First Amendment protections by seemingly pressuring cable providers and others to drop Fox News, OANN or Newsmax.
“It has been priorly established that the government can’t indirectly do things that it can’t do directly, and that includes using private actors to do it,” Smith said.
But as one attorney, who has a long history representing media companies before the Federal Communications Commission and Congress, said, “Members of Congress actually have First Amendment rights to criticize companies, just like companies have First Amendment rights to criticize Congress.”
Also, he added, while it’s possible congressional pressure might influence the behavior of some cable providers at the margins, “Does it dramatically change things? I honestly don’t think so.”
Holan agreed that in the end, the hearings may not have any lasting effect.
“Congress has a history of grandstanding around the topic of misinformation,” she said. “So you never know if these hearings are going to be substantial or just a chance for members to give five-minute speeches on their favorite topic of the day.”
Updated on Wednesday at 9:41 a.m.