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Media Accused of Disinformation As Congress Ponders Restrictions

February 25, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
The mass media as represented by monitors in the lobby of the National Press Building. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — The news media fell under attack Wednesday in Congress for exacerbating the COVID-19 pandemic, encouraging the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and irresponsibly downplaying threats of global warming.

The criticisms were hurled during a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing.

“They engage their viewers by enraging them and further dividing us as a nation,” Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., who chairs the subcommittee on communications and technology, said about some television and radio news outlets.

Their real motive is “to chase higher profits,” he said.

Some news reports early last year said COVID-19 represented only a nominal health risk, about the same as flu. Others, such as one by Cable News Network chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, said wearing masks might not be needed for persons in good health.

Only days before the congressional hearing, the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 surpassed a half-million.

In another example, lawmakers said that by giving White extremists airtime before the riot at the Capitol last month, television stations granted them credibility that helped them organize their attack.

They made similar criticisms of media organizations that quoted dubious scientific reports saying global warming was not a major environmental problem.

Two of the subcommittee’s Democrats sent a letter this week to executives at AT&T, Comcast and Amazon asking them whether they plan to continue broadcasts by their television partners at Fox News, One America News Network and Newsmax.

The letter called the networks “misinformation rumor mills and conspiracy theory hotbeds that produce content that leads to real harm.” They sent the letter to 12 cable, satellite and internet streaming companies.

Other members of the subcommittee accused their colleagues who wrote the letter of trying to pressure media organizations in a way that violates First Amendment rights to free speech and freedom of the press.

“Let’s come together and make sure we don’t have a censorship campaign,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.

She called any congressional proposals to interfere with media reports “un-American.”

“That sounds like actions from the Chinese Communist Party,” Rodgers said.

The lawmakers are trying to decide whether new regulations are needed to control disinformation. No proposals are now pending in Congress,

Longtime television news journalist Soledad O’Brien advised the committee against any action that might infringe on freedom of the press. However, she agreed that disinformation was a persistent problem, sometimes delving into what she called “lies” by disreputable news sources.

Since 2016, O’Brien has hosted “Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien”, a nationally syndicated weekly talk show produced by Hearst Television. Previously she was an anchor for the NBC News and Cable News Network television syndicates.

“I am advocating for good journalism,” O’Brien said.

As the internet and cable news have grown over the past 30 years, about 2,100 local newspapers and other publications were driven out of business by the competition.

“TV didn’t fill the void,” O’Brien said. “Instead, it became the place where facts came to die.”

In efforts to present two sides to each story, television news organizations sometimes enlist sources that are not believable, leading to the kind of disinformation that culminated in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, she said.

Other times, their efforts to present different points of view led viewers to believe masks and other precautions against COVID-19 were optional, possibly making the U.S. death toll worse, O’Brien said.

“I do not believe that lies deserve equal time,” O’Brien said.

George Washington University Law School Professor Jonathan Turley cautioned lawmakers by saying, “Don’t proceed down that slippery slope toward censorship.”

If Congress chooses more regulation of the media, “The question is, who will be the arbiter of truth,” Turley asked.

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