House Democrats are pressuring cable providers and online streaming companies to purge conservative media outlets from their platforms or at the very least to do more to censor content they deem as fake and misleading.
They’re targeting Fox News Channel, One American News Network and Newsmax, casting them as purveyors of lies and conspiracy theories that have ripped apart the nation, downplayed the threat of the coronavirus and helped give rise to the Jan. 6 rampage at the U.S. Capitol.
Constitutional scholars say that these Democrats are treading on dangerous authoritarian ground.
Reps. Anna G. Eshoo and Jerry McNerney, both California Democrats, blasted off a letter this week to major cable providers — such as Comcast, Verizon and Cox — and to digital companies — including Roku, Apple and Hulu — grilling them on what they’ve done against misinformation and lies being aired on their platforms.
“What steps did you take prior to, on and following the Nov. 3, 2020, elections and the Jan. 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?” the letter read.
“Are you planning to continue carrying Fox News, OANN and Newsmax on your platform both now and beyond the renewal date?” they wrote. “If so, why?”
Liberal-leanings outlets were given a pass.
Ms. Eshoo and Mr. McNerney are senior members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is set to hold a hearing Wednesday on “Fanning the Flames: Disinformation and Extremism in the Media.”
The committee is set to hear testimony from: former CNN journalist Soledad O’Brien; Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Media at Columbia University; Kristin Danielle Urquiza, founder of Marked by COVID; and Jonathan Turley, professor at The George Washington University Law School.
On Tuesday, Mr. Turley told The Washington Times he will urge committee members not to proceed down the slippery slope of censoring free speech and called the letter from panel Democrats concerning.
“From the perspective of free speech and the free press, the letter is not just chilling, it is positively glacial,” Mr. Turley said. “This is an example of members trying to do indirectly what they cannot do directly.”
“Congress could never bar the airing of networks like Fox News under the First Amendment,” he said. “The fact that they are attempting to use private companies to engage in censorship does not lessen the threat to free speech.”
The focus on the cable companies and streaming providers comes amid growing concerns among some that the media landscape has devolved into a wild west of disinformation, lies and crackpot ideas that must be reined in.
The attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob added to the sense of urgency among Democrats that these companies should pay a price — though it remains to be seen what exactly they plan to do beyond public shaming.
Republicans have been reluctant to join the effort.
In previous hearings on Capitol Hill, GOP lawmakers have erred on the side of caution, warning against limiting free speech, and focusing much of their attention on whether social-media giants have been more willing in such efforts to crack down on conservative content.
Democrats, meanwhile, say right-wing networks provided a safe haven for former President Donald Trump and his allies to spew lies — giving viewers false impressions about the coronavirus and the results of the 2020 election.
“Right-wing media outlets, like Newsmax, One America News Network (OANN), and Fox News all aired misinformation about the November 2020 elections,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter. “These same networks also have been key vectors of spreading misinformation related to the pandemic.”
Fox pushed back, calling the effort a “chilling transgression of the free speech rights that every media outlet in this country enjoys.”
“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,” the network said. “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.”
Newsmax accused the Democrats of waging war on the First Amendment.
“The House Democrats’ attack on free speech and basic First Amendment rights should send chills down the spines of all Americans,” the network said in a statement. “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,” Newsmax said.