House Democrats demand answers on TV ‘misinformation rumor mills’
House Democrats are pressing cable and streaming services over their decisions to host channels that the lawmakers accuse of spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories that lead to “real world harm.”
Reps. Anna Eshoo (Calif.) and Jerry McNerney (Calif.), senior members of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, sent letters to the companies on Monday questioning their “ethical principles” involved in deciding which channels to carry and when to take action against a channel.
“Some purported news outlets have long been misinformation rumor mills and conspiracy theory hotbeds that produce content that leads to real harm,” they wrote.
“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.”
The letter specifically calls out Newsmax, One America Network (OANN) and Fox News.
A Fox News Media spokesperson said the letter “sets a terrible precedent.”
“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,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
Newsmax also criticized the letter and defended its coverage.
“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,” the outlet said in a statement.
The lawmakers also asked for information about the number of users who tuned into the stations in the weeks leading up to the election and the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.
Eshoo and McNerney sent letters to traditional cable providers, including Verizon and Comcast, as well as tech companies that provide channels as part of streaming services including Amazon, Google, Apple, Roku and Hulu.
Amazon said the company is reviewing the letter, while a spokesperson for Comcast declined to comment.
Spokespeople for OANN the providers did not immediately respond for comment.
Republicans are pushing back on the letter sent by the two Democrats.
“The Majority is flirting with violating the First Amendment,” a Republican aide said. “Should the government be pressuring private industries to censor legally protected content and suppress the freedom of the press? No. If a free and independent press is still valued and mainstream in America, this censorship campaign should alarm every single journalist and member of the media.”
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Brendan Carr, a Republican, called the letter a “chilling transgression of the free speech rights that every media outlet in this country enjoys.”
“To the House Democrats that used their official letterhead to launch this inquiry, I would say this: 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,” he said in a statement.
“I call on my FCC colleagues to join me in publicly denouncing this attempt to stifle political speech and independent news judgment,” Carr added.
— Brendan Carr (@BrendanCarrFCC) February 22, 2021
The letter is setting the scene for what will likely be a contentious Wednesday committee hearing about “disinformation and extremism in the media.”
Democrats and Republicans have split on the issue in the past, notably in October over tech platforms’ decision to limit the spread of a New York Post story that included allegations about Hunter Biden, the son of now-President Biden.
The story quickly drew skepticism over its sourcing and findings, but when the tech giants clamped down on the spread of it online, Republicans widely criticized the companies of censoring content and an anti-conservative bias.
Republicans are expected to again bring up the controversy over the Post story on Wednesday.
Democrats, however, may focus on the boosting of election misinformation and the role it may have played in leading to the deadly insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6. The letter Eshoo and McNerney sent Monday highlights ways the stations spread false claims about the election, as well as the way the riot at the Capitol was covered.
The letter also discusses reports of misinformation about COVID-19 reportedly shared by Newsmax, OANN and Fox News.
—Updated at 2:36 p.m.