Nice cable-satellite service ya got there. Shame if anything happened to your regulatory approvals. Two House Democrats didn’t waste much time in attempting to bully these distributors into deplatforming conservative media outlets. Reps. Anna Eshloo and Jerry McNerney sent letters to the CEOs of Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, Roku, and others demanding to know whether they planned to renew contracts with Fox News, OANN, and Newsmax after “incendiary reports” over the past year — and why they would carry them in the future:
Experts have noted that the right-wing media ecosystem is “much more susceptible…to disinformation, lies, and half-truths.”4 Right-wing media outlets, like Newsmax, One America News Network (OANN), and Fox News all aired misinformation about the November 2020 elections.5 For example, both Newsmax and OANN “ran incendiary reports” of false information following the elections and continue to support “an angry and dangerous subculture [that] will continue to operate semi-openly.”6 As a violent mob was breaching the doors of the Capitol, Newsmax’s coverage called the scene a “sort of a romantic idea.”7 Fox News, meanwhile, has spent years spewing misinformation about American politics.8
These same networks also have been key vectors of spreading misinformation related to the pandemic. A media watchdog found over 250 cases of COVID-19 misinformation on Fox News in just one five-day period, 9 and economists demonstrated that Fox News had a demonstrable impact on non-compliance with public health guidelines.10 One online platform suspended and demonetized OANN’s channel online because it was spreading COVID-19 misinformation.11 Newsmax has amplified allegations that members of the Chinese Communist Party helped to develop the COVID-19 vaccine.12
At the end of each letter, they demand answers to seven questions, including their editorial policies over carriage access, their “moral or ethical principles” in applying them, and the specific viewership data for each of these conservative channels. The last question gives away the game:
7. Are you planning to continue carrying Fox News, Newsmax, and OANN on Roku both now and beyond any contract renewal date? If so, why?
The proper answer to this would be to ignore it entirely. If these CEOs want to respond, however, the second-best answer is none of your damned business. Even if Congress has any control over which news outlets get carriage access — which they most certainly do not — cable companies are platforms, not publishers. Not long ago, House Democrats demanded “net neutrality” from internet companies on content, a couple of which (AT&T in particular) they are now demanding editorial impositions and traffic choking based on viewpoint.
It’s true that these news outlets allowed nonsense conspiracy theories to float on their air, for which Dominion and Smartmatic are now suing them for defamation. But they’re hardly alone in that failing, as Reason’s Robby Soave pointed out yesterday. Where are the letters from Eshloo and McNerney to the New York Times and CNN, Soave wonders:
False claims do appear with some frequency on conservative news channels, streaming services, and social media. But they also appear in The New York Times, on CNN, and in other mainstream information outlets. The traditional remedy to misinformation is to file a defamation lawsuit. The federal government does not need to involve itself.
On the contrary, the First Amendment prohibits Congress from infringing on free speech—and that includes the freedom of provide companies to decide what kind of speech appears on their platforms. Politicians are not in charge of setting the parameters for acceptable speech on the internet and television. That responsibility devolves to individual companies and individual viewers.
Make no mistake: The letter to television providers was an act of intimidation. This behavior is equally unacceptable when Republicans do it: Calls to regulate tech companies because Facebook, Twitter, and Google make moderation decisions that irritate conservatives are also threats to free speech. Members of both political parties are intent on wielding their power to curb the speech of their adversaries, which is precisely why the government does not—and should not—have the power to compel or censor speech.
Soave warns that this intimidation would gut the First Amendment if allowed to proceed, and that conservative media won’t be the only targets:
As the words “misinformation” and “disinformation” come to refer not to just clear falsehoods but to information that is contentious, disputed, or highly partisan but nevertheless true, it is important to reject the idea that there is a “fake news” exception to the First Amendment. If a statement is libelous, then an outlet can be sued for printing it. If it contains a call to violence, platforms may have some legal responsibility to take action against it. But the First Amendment’s protections are extremely robust, and the government may not criminalize the dissemination of information that is merely wrong or uninformed. Such a move would imperil not just right-wing news channels, but all speech that criticizes the government.
These cable/satellite CEOs have an opportunity to remind Congress of the limit of their authority by telling Eshloo and McNerney to pound sand. Unfortunately, we can hardly rely on these rent-seeking corporate giants to defend the very principles on which they prosper. The best way to do that is to send the Eshloos and McNerneys back into the minority in the next election.