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Democrats' letter targeting Fox, Newsmax for misinformation sparks clash during hearing

Democrats fended off accusations of partisan bias during a debate over disinformation in the media at a House Energy and Commerce hearing on Wednesday.

Reps. Anna EshooAnna Georges EshooNIH readies grants for more research on long-term health effects of COVID-19 Lawmakers launch bipartisan caucus on SALT deduction Biden clean electricity standard faces high hurdles MORE (D-Calif.) and Jerry McNerneyGerlad (Jerry) Mark McNerneyIn defense of misinformation House Democrats want to silence opposing views, not 'fake news' Hillicon Valley: Biden signs order on chips | Hearing on media misinformation | Facebook's deal with Australia | CIA nominee on SolarWinds MORE (D-Calif.) sent a letter to cable and streaming companies on Monday questioning their decisions to host certain news networks. The letter linked content aired on certain channels to the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

"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, singling out Newsmax, One America News Network (OANN) and Fox News for airing misinformation.

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The letter drew quick backlash from Republicans, including ranking committee member Rep. Cathy McMorris RodgersCathy McMorris RodgersHillicon Valley: US, UK authorities say Russian hackers exploited Microsoft vulnerabilities | Lawmakers push for more cyber funds in annual appropriations | Google child care workers ask for transportation stipend Lawmakers push for increased cybersecurity funds in annual appropriations The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Upbeat jobs data, relaxed COVID-19 restrictions offer rosier US picture MORE (R-Wash.) who cast it as an effort to pressure the companies to block the right-leaning outlets. 

“I want to be very clear, condemning the January 6th attack and upholding truth and facts is a shared, bipartisan goal. But that is not what this hearing is about,” McMorris Rodgers said. “If the majority was interested in a meaningful dialogue, you would not schedule a hyper-partisan hearing to shame and blame. You certainly would not send letters pressuring private companies to block conservative media outlets,” she added.

Shortly before the start of the hearing, the ranking member sent a letter urging acting Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairwoman Jessica RosenworcelJessica RosenworcelTo build lasting digital equity, look to communities Officials discuss proposals for fixing deep disparities in education digital divide The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the National Shooting Sports Foundation - At 50 days in charge, Democrats hail American Rescue Plan as major win MORE to condemn Eshoo and McNerney’s letter. A spokesperson for the FCC did not respond for comment. 

Eshoo dismissed the criticism, noting that the letter simply asks companies to respond with detailed answers over their decisions on offering certain channels. 

“I’d like this to be understood, the idea that members asking questions violates the First Amendment is absolutely absurd. It's our job to ask questions,” Eshoo said. 

Eshoo and McNerney’s letter asked the companies about their “ethical principles” involved in deciding which channels to carry and when to take action against a channel. 

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Fox News and Newsmax pushed back on the accusations and defended their coverage. 

“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,” a Fox News Media spokesperson said in a statement. 

“Newsmax reported fairly and accurately on allegations and claims made by both sides during the recent election contest," the outlet said in a statement. 

Despite the accusations, Democrats during the hearing did not voice support for pulling any networks from airwaves or censoring the outlets.

The hearing Wednesday addressed similar concerns as laid out in Eshoo and McNerney’s letters, with a broader focus on the spread of disinformation by media outlets, including false claims about election fraud that fueled the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, as well as misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic. 

Still, many GOP members joined McMorris Rodgers in condemning Eshoo and Mcnerney’s letter and accused their Democratic colleagues of unfairly focusing on the networks listed in the letter. 

“Let's be consistent in calling it out, not trying to suggest disingenuously that it only comes from one side of the political spectrum. Let's be fair and recognize that we could all do a better job encouraging the rhetoric to be toned down,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said. 

Kristin Urquiza, the co-founder of a group called Marked by COVID and a witness at the hearing, accused some media companies of being “complicit” in spreading disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic that she said played a role in her own father dying from COVID-19. She said one of her father’s frequent news sources was Fox News. 

“The media didn't pull the trigger but they drove the getaway car,” she said. 

The other witnesses at the hearing, experts in law and media, largely pushed back on Congress taking direct action to regulate news media, but they shared recommendations that could help mitigate the spread of the false information. 

“I think that is nothing that the Congress has to deal with. It’s news organizations themselves who should hold themselves to this standard. It’s a journalistic standard,” said Soledad O’Brien, a former CNN host and now host of the Hearst Television political magazine program “Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien."

O’Brien pushed for news outlets to avoid posing every story as “having two sides,” and to stop booking “liars” that spread false information. 

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“Every perspective does not deserve a platform,” she said. “Media thrives on the open exchange of ideas, but that doesn’t mean you have to book a neo-Nazi every time you book someone who is Jewish.” 

Emily Bell, the director of the Tow Center for Digital Media at Columbia University, suggested backing efforts to boost local news outlets. 

“I think local media does a great job at keeping people accountable when there's enough of it,” Bell said. 

“The job here is to think about some of the incentive structures and what we can do to positively regulate rather than negatively regulate,” she added. “Rather than saying, ‘let's ban certain amounts of speech,’ —  I don't think anybody here is in favor of that — how do we make sure that that type of journalism and those types of systems … are really encouraged.”

Jonathan Turley, a professor at the George Washington University Law School and an opinion contributer at The Hill, also raised concerns about the “blurring” of opinion and news content on cable news channels in the evening and the role the networks can play in creating dialogues.  

“People are addicted to rage and they're using that rage to try to silence others or blame others and it's ripping this country apart,” he said. “The media can play a very important role in trying to create a dialogue, and that's all the media, the diversity of media that we have, and Congress can help in that sense.” 

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The committee will further examine the spread of misinformation and extremist content as it relates to social media platforms next month when the CEOs of Google, Twitter and Facebook are scheduled to testify before the committee. 

That upcoming hearing will likely draw out the partisan debate over platform’s content moderation practices.

Republicans have continued to issue unsubstantiated claims that tech companies are censoring content with an anti-conservative bias, while Democrats have largely pushed the companies to take greater action against misinformation and hate speech.