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The country's largest cable TV providers — the companies that deliver hundreds of channels into homes across the country — will be on the hot seat today. In the wake of the last month's deadly, military-style insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Democrats at a scheduled Energy and Commerce Committee hearing want to know what AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and other media bosses are doing about the never-ending flow of lies and misinformation produced by right-wing outlets, such as Fox News.
Today, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are working to try to clamp down on far-right content that spreads dangerous lies about the election, which whipped up a bloodthirsty mob on January 6, as well as a year's worth of Covid-19 falsehoods. Now Democrats want to press the carriers on what can be done about cable television outlets, including Newsmax TV and OAN, that gleefully do the same thing.
"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?" asked two Democratic representatives from California, Anna Eshoo and Jerry McNerney, in a letter sent to cable provider CEO's, as well as to the heads of Roku, Amazon, Apple, Google and Hulu, digital companies that distribute cable programming. "Do you require, through contracts or otherwise, that the channels you carry abide by any content guidelines? If so, please provide a copy of the guidelines."
The carriers not only help Fox News spread the insurrectionist message, they provide the network with billions of dollars each year in lucrative fees.
Wednesday's "“Fanning the Flames: Disinformation and Extremism in the Media” hearing will mark the first time Democrats publicly seek to hold media outlets accountable for the purposeful lies that defined the Trump era. Democrats want to know if the carriers bear any responsibility for the programming they deliver — granting platforms to dishonest companies that profit off conspiracy theories — and what the government's role might be in combating right-wing media propaganda. (The long-gone Fairness Doctrine never did apply to cable TV content.)
"Many experts agree that dangerous disinformation about the coronavirus disease of 2019(COVID-19) and the 2020 presidential election has greatly intensified an already deadly public health crisis, further divided the nation, and fomented an insurrection," the Energy & Commerce Committee announced. "While much of the blame has been placed on the widespread disinformation on social media platforms, industry participants have also noted that broadcast and cable outlets have played a role in the spread of disinformation."
A debate about the deadly consequences of right-wing lies is one that we should be having as a nation, and it's a conversation Fox News desperately wants to avoid, as it hides behind the lie that it's a journalism entity and therefore deserves traditional protections. And the questions for carriers are equally legitimate: If Alex Jones started a TV network, it's likely lots of carriers would refuse to touch it, based on the host's incendiary, hateful content. So why doesn't the same apply to Fox News?
The new pressure comes as Fox News faces a $2.7 billion defamation lawsuit, filed by the election technology company Smartmatic. It alleges that Fox News knowingly promoted lies about the election and Smartmatic’s role in it, as part of the right-wing “rigged” crusade this winter.
There's no question that Fox, Newsmax, and OAN were effective in spreading Trump's Big Lie. Just one-in-three of Republicans say the 2020 election was “free and fair," according to a recent Morning Consult poll. And nearly half of Republicans who falsely believe there was widespread election fraud point to Fox’s reporting for leading them to that conclusion.
That barrage has been constant. Weeks after the election, Tucker Carlson told viewers that “the 2020 presidential election was not fair” and that “no honest person would claim that it was fair.” Jut two days before the deadly insurrection, he claimed that the election was “rigg[ed]” against Trump. And from Monday night: "There is no evidence that white supremacists were responsible for what happened on January 6."
Those lies would never reach viewers if it weren't for the corporate carriers. And for Fox News, the carriers represent a key lifeblood of the channel's profitability. Every cable or satellite TV provider pays a subscriber fee of nearly $2 per-household to carry Fox News, a cost paid for directly by consumers, whether they watch Fox News or not. The network rakes in nearly $2 billion each year from the hidden subscriber fees, twice as much as CNN and three times as much as MSNBC. Those sky-high fees in turn protect Fox News when advertisers abandon the network.
Activists have learned over the years that trying to pressure Madison Avenue to drop Fox News and to not be associated with its dehumanizing programming, often doesn't work in terms of getting Fox News to change because most of the network's profits come from carriers fees.
Even though Tucker Carlson lost virtually all of his blue-chip advertisers years ago and now relies on the My Pillow guy to buy up the show's inventory, Carlson remains safely ensconced at Fox News spewing hatred and lies about the pandemic and the election. That’s because Murdoch's network can afford to take that hit thanks to the billions they receive in carrier fees, which dwarf the network's advertising base.
Cable providers might like to see themselves as nothing more than middlemen who provide programming platforms. But when that content kills, the way right-wing lies about elections and Covid do, those providers bear responsibility.
(Photo Joseph Prezioso/Getty Images)
I haven’t seen much media reflection on what should be learned from the Trump years when so much went wrong.
One exception is this excellent piece from Perry Bacon, Jr., at FiveThirtyEight: “What The Trump Era Taught Me About Covering Politics,” detailing nine lessons he learned:
4. Move on from both sides-ism.
In the Trump era, journalists were often faced with a choice: straightforwardly describe Trump’s behavior, which would sound negative and lead to more criticism from conservatives of liberal bias; or soft-pedal Trump’s behavior and make strained analogies to Democratic politicians to reduce accusations they were being partisan. Eventually (and perhaps inevitably), many journalists eventually took the first course.
FUN STUFF — BECAUSE WE ALL NEED A BREAK
Fleet Foxes, “Sunblind”
Nothing quite sounds like a Fleet Foxes record. With his shimmering, dreamy sound, lush overlapping vocals, and introspective lyrics, Robin Pecknold’s project continues to carve out an intrigue niche.
With “Sunblind,” Pecknold pays tribute to artists who have inspired him and who have passed on, including John Prine, Elliott Smith, Bill Withers, and Judee Sill.
I'm gonna swim for a week in
Warm American Water with dear friends
Just intending that I would delight them
Swimming high on a lea in an Eden