Two House Democrats pressed a mix of cable, satellite and streaming providers on Monday about their decisions to carry Fox News, One America News Network and Newsmax, accusing the right-leaning outlets of serving as “misinformation rumor mills and conspiracy theory hotbeds that produce content that leads to real harm.”
Crossing a line: The letters from members of the Energy and Commerce Committee reflect continued anger in Congress about the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump, as well as Democrats’ concerns that misinformation fueling the riot spread on conservative news outlets in addition to social media.
But the Democrats’ questions also represent a rare effort by members of Congress to intrude into companies’ decisions to carry specific news networks. In some ways, it parallels the years of complaints Republicans have raised about the content of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter — but extends that fight in a way that could raise broader free-speech issues.
The letters: Reps. Anna Eshoo and Jerry McNerney, both from California, sent the letters to AT&T, Verizon, Roku, Amazon, Apple, Comcast, Charter, DISH, Cox, Altice and Hulu as well as Google’s parent, Alphabet.
"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?" the Democrats asked. They also asked the carriers if they are "planning to continue carrying Fox News, Newsmax, and OANN."
What the Democrats said: The lawmakers pointed to concerns around the channels’ handling of the November presidential election and Trump’s false claims of victory leading up to the January riot, as well as the pandemic. (Eshoo chairs E&C’s health subcommittee.)
“Right-wing media outlets, like Newsmax, One America News Network (OANN), and Fox News all aired misinformation about the November 2020 elections,” Eshoo and McNerney wrote. “These same networks also have been key vectors of spreading misinformation related to the pandemic.”
Fox and Newsmax quickly expressed alarm about the Democrats’ efforts.
“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," Fox said. The network, which in November called Arizona’s election results in favor of President Joe Biden ahead of other outlets and faced blowback from Trump supporters for the decision, noted that it was the most watched cable news channel of 2020 and said it clearly distinguishes news from opinion.
“The House Democrats’ attack on free speech and basic First Amendment rights should send chills down the spines of all Americans," Newsmax said. "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.”
OAN didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
What’s next: The House Energy and Commerce telecom subcommittee will hold a hearing on Wednesday devoted to what it calls misinformation and disinformation hosted on cable and broadcast networks, with an eye toward both the Capitol attack and the pandemic. No one from the networks is listed among witnesses.
“Free speech scholars argue that for a democracy to function, informed debates and the marketplace of ideas must be able to work off of a shared set of facts,” Democratic staff wrote in a memo released on Monday, arguing that cable operators and broadcasters “have played a role in the spread of disinformation.”
Lawmakers have in recent years largely targeted social media companies rather than more traditional media companies over the spread of bogus information.