House Democrats, Targeting Right-Wing Cable Outlets, Are Assaulting Core Press Freedoms –
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) (C) with other House Democrats at the U.S. Capitol January 15, 2020, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Not even two months into their reign as the majority party that controls the White House and both houses of Congress, key Democrats have made clear that one of their top priorities is censorship of divergent voices. On Saturday, I detailed how their escalating official campaign to coerce and threaten social media companies into more aggressively censoring views that they dislike — including by summoning social media CEOs to appear before them for the third time in less than five months — is implicating, if not already violating, core First Amendment rights of free speech.
Now they are going further — much further. The same Democratic House Committee that is demanding greater online censorship from social media companies now has its sights set on the removal of conservative cable outlets, including Fox News, from the airwaves.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee on Monday announced a February 24 hearing, convened by one of its sub-committees, entitled “Fanning the Flames: Disinformation and Extremism in the Media.” Claiming that “the spread of disinformation and extremism by traditional news media presents a tangible and destabilizing threat,” the Committee argues: “Some broadcasters’ and cable networks’ increasing reliance on conspiracy theories and misleading or patently false information raises questions about their devotion to journalistic integrity.”
Since when is it the role of the U.S. Government to arbitrate and enforce precepts of “journalistic integrity”? Unless you believe in the right of the government to regulate and control what the press says — a power which the First Amendment explicitly prohibits — how can anyone be comfortable with members of Congress arrogating unto themselves the power to dictate what media outlets are permitted to report and control how they discuss and analyze the news of the day?
But what House Democrats are doing here is far more insidious than what is revealed by that creepy official announcement. Two senior members of that Committee, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Silicon-Valley) and Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-CA) also sent their own letters to seven of the nation’s largest cable providers — Comcast, AT&T, Spectrum, Dish, Verizon, Cox, and Altice — as well as to digital distributors of cable news (Roku, Amazon, Apple, Google, and Hulu) demanding to know, among other things, what those cable distributors did to prevent conservative “disinformation” prior to the election and after — disinformation, they said, that just so happened to be spread by the only conservative cable outlets: Fox, Newsmax, and OANN.
In case there was any doubt about their true goal — coercing these cable providers to remove all cable networks that feature conservative voices, including Fox (just as their counterparts on that Committee want to ban right-wing voices from social media) — the House Democrats in their letter said explicitly what they are after: namely, removal of those conservative outlets by these cable providers:
Congresswoman Eshoo boasted on her official site about these efforts, lauding herself and McNerney for “urging 12 cable, satellite, and streaming TV companies to combat the spread of misinformation and requesting more information about their actions to address misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories, and lies spread through channels they host.”
For the last four years, we were inundated with media messaging that Trump posed an unprecedented threat to press freedoms. The Washington Post even flamboyantly adopted a new motto to implicitly ratify that accusation (while claiming it was not Trump-specific). Other than the indictment of Julian Assange — which most Washington Democrats cheered — what did the Trump administration do in the way of attacking press freedoms that remotely compares to Democrats abusing their majoritarian power to force the removal of conservative cable outlets from the airwaves, just days after doing the same with dissident voices online?
There is not a peep of protest from any liberal journalists. Do any of the people who spent four years pretending to care so deeply about the vital role of press freedom have anything to say about this full frontal attack by the majority party in Washington on news outlets opposed to their political agenda and ideology?
Evidently not. While many conservative outlets are covering this story, it is difficult to find any liberal outlets writing about it at all. An article from The New York Times was one exception, though it largely attempted to justify these censorship efforts, with paragraph after paragraph purporting to demonstrate the dangerous misinformation spread by these channels. The only nods to the dangers of press freedoms in the article came from statements by Fox News and a GOP member of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Revealingly, these same two members of Congress who sent this threatening letter to cable providers said during the Trump years that freedom of the press must be safeguarded at all costs. “The First Amendment prohibits Congress from making laws that abridge the freedom of the press, and we cherish our country’s culture of free expression,” they intoned when writing to the FCC in 2019 to complain that Russian news outlets were concealing their affiliation with the Kremlin. “We’re not requesting any press censorship,” they assured the FCC under Trump. Yet they are clearly doing exactly that now.
In a statement he emailed to me and publicly posted, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr denounced the Democrats’ actions as a “marked departure from First Amendment norms.” He said “it is a chilling transgression of the free speech rights that every media outlet in this country enjoys.” In response to my inquiries, Commissioner Carr added in a separate statement to me:
The greatest threat to free speech in America today is not any law passed by the government—the First Amendment stands as a strong bulwark against that form of censorship by state action. The threat comes in the form of legislating by letterhead. Politicians have realized that they can silence the speech of those with different political viewpoints by public bullying. The letter sent by two senior Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee to cable companies and other regulated entities, and the Committee’s own hearing this week on “disinformation in the media,” are the latest examples. They are singling out selected newsrooms for their coverage of political events and sending a clear message that these media outlets will pay a price if they do not align their viewpoints with Democrat orthodoxy. That is a chilling transgression of free speech and journalistic freedom. No government official has any business inquiring about the ‘moral principles’ that guide a private entity’s decision about what news to carry.
Carr’s GOP colleague on the FCC, Commissioner Nathan Simington, similarly accused House Democrats of seeking to “intimidate into silence those who would distribute on their platforms disfavored points of view.”
The way Democrats justify this to themselves is important to consider. They do not, of course, explicitly acknowledge that they are engaged in authoritarian assaults on free speech and a free press. Not even the most despotic tyrants like to think of themselves in that way. All tyrants concoct theories and excuses to justify their censorship as noble and necessary.
Indeed, the justifying script Democrats are using here is the one most commonly employed by autocrats around the world to silence their critics. Those they seek to silence are not merely expressing a different view, but are dangerous. They are not merely advocating alternative ideologies but are destabilizing society with lies, fake news, and speech that deliberately incites violence, subversion and domestic terrorism.
In her boastful posting, Rep. Eshoo says her efforts targeting these cable outlets are necessary because “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.” This is the rationale invoked by virtually every repressive state to imprison journalists and ban media outlets.
The Democrats sound a great deal like the Egyptian regime of Gen. Abdel el-Sisi. Just two weeks ago, Sisi’s regime finally released an Al Jazeera journalist who had been imprisoned for four years based on accusations that he had “spread false news” and was guilty of “incitement against state institutions and broadcasting false news with the aim of spreading chaos.” Sound familiar? It should, since that is precisely what House Democrats are saying to ennoble their multi-pronged assault on free expression.