- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 24, 2021

The Democrat-led rush to sideline media outlets such as Fox and Newsmax that they accused of disseminating “disinformation” ran into strong opposition Wednesday from Republicans and free speech advocates who warned that the push puts the nation on a slippery slope toward state-controlled censorship.

Members of a House panel clashed over the widely held belief among Democrats that news outlets should pay a price for parroting former President Donald Trump’s false messaging — in particular his downplaying of the coronavirus and insistence that the 2020 election was stolen.

“Let me put it bluntly: Misinformation is killing Americans and damaging our democracy,” Rep. Anna G. Eshoo told members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “We have to examine how conspiracies and lies convince people to dismiss public health measures and refuse lifesaving vaccines.

“This is not about left versus right; this is about life and death,” she said. “Similarly, the Jan. 6 insurrection was built on a foundation of lies about mail-in ballots, voting machines and election results.”

Ms. Eshoo and Rep. Jerry McNerney, both Democrats from California, created a stir this week by sending a letter asking major cable providers and digital streaming services to explain the safeguards they have in place to stop lies and disinformation from being circulated on their platforms.

The lawmakers specifically targeted conservative-leaning news outlets.

“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?”

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Washington Republican, called the letter an “obvious, direct attack on the First Amendment.”

“Every journalist from MSNBC and CNN to The New York Times should be concerned by the majority’s actions, and anyone who values free speech and a free press should be worried,” Ms. McMorris Rodgers said. “Election officials using their platform to pressure private companies to censure media companies they disagree with? That sounds like actions from the Chinese Communist Party, not duly elected representatives of the United States Congress.”

Ms. McMorris Rogers questioned whether MSNBC should be punished for sticking with the “false Russian collusion narrative” and whether CNN should be targeted for the glowing accounts it gave Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s coronavirus response.

“Now more than ever, we must uphold the First Amendment,” she said. “This is an abuse of power.”

In testimony before the committee, Jonathan Turley, professor at the George Washington University Law School, said: “History has shown that public or private censorship does not produce better speech.

“It is a self-replicating and self-perpetuating path that only produces more censorship and more controlled speech,” said Mr. Turley, stressing that the First Amendment limits the federal government’s ability to crack down on speech.

“I have no illusions about the harm of disinformation and extremist speech in our society, yet I believe the speech controls pose far greater threats for our country than misguided or malevolent speech,” he said.

“The question is: Who will be the arbiter of truth in any public or private regime of speech regulation?” he said. “The reason that most of us have opposed state media controls is not simply because we disfavor state regulation of speech, but because we favor free speech.”

Rounding out the witness list were journalist Soledad O’Brien; Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University; and Kristin Danielle Urquiza, co-founder of Marked by COVID.

Ms. O’Brien said media organizations have a responsibility to stop booking liars on their programs and reflect on the role they have played in feeding into the disinformation and political polarization.

The panelists lamented the hollowing-out of local newsrooms and shuttering of newspapers. They said the void has been filled by social media and television news, which often blur the lines between fact and opinion, leading to the spread of misinformation and feeding into mistrust of government institutions.

Ms. Urquiza said her father died from COVID-19 after heeding the advice of Mr. Trump and his enablers in the media who dismissed the threat of the virus.

“The media didn’t pull the trigger, but they drove the getaway car,” she said. “Cable news channels like Fox News are complicit.”

When asked whether cable TV providers should be forced to stop carrying conservative-leaning outlets, the witnesses agreed that is not the answer.

“I don’t think Congress has a role in regulating it,” Ms. O’Brien said. “I think news organizations should say we are here to serve the public, this is what we are supposed to do, how do we do a better job?”

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, Louisiana Republican, questioned why Democrats didn’t express similar levels of disgust after a gunman in 2017 opened fire on a congressional softball team, leaving him seriously wounded.

“The gunman was motivated by hypercharged rhetoric that he was hearing from the left. From high prominent elected officials as well as media personalities,” said Mr. Scalise, holding up a report from the FBI. “I don’t blame those other people. I blame the shooter. The shooter is the one who should be held accountable.”

Mr. Scalise called on his colleagues to be consistent with their outrage and “not try to suggest disingenuously that it only comes from one side of the political spectrum.”

Despite the blowback, Rep. Michael Doyle, Pennsylvania Democrat, said the media industry must be examined.

“The First Amendment protects the freedom of the press and freedom of speech, and the freedom of speech encourages us to ask tough questions about what is going on in the media, what is motivating the tidal wave of disinformation that is putting the lives of so many Americans and ultimately our democracy at risk,” Mr. Doyle said.

“Partisanship and polarization in the media has been building for years, but these most recent events represent a frightening escalation,” he said.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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