Even By Democratic Party Standards, Censoring Fox News Is An Insanely Stupid Idea
How will the latest campaign against "misinformation" backfire for the country? Let's count the ways
Two and a half years ago, when Alex Jones of Infowars was kicked off a series of tech platforms in a clearly coordinated decision, I knew this was not going to be an isolated thing.
Given that people like Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy were saying the ouster of Jones was just a “good first step,” it seemed obvious the tactic was not going to be confined to a few actors. But corporate media critics insisted the precedent would not be applied more broadly.
“I don't think we are going to be seeing big tech take action against Fox News… any time soon,” commented CNN’s Oliver Darcy.
Darcy was wrong. Just a few years later, calls to ban Fox are not only common, they’re intensifying, with media voices from Brian Stelter on CNN to MSNBC analyst Anand Giridharadas to former Media Matters critic Eric Boehlert to Washington Post columnists Max Boot and Margaret Sullivan all on board.
The movement crested this week with a letter from California House Democrats Anna Eshoo and Jerry McNerney, written to the CEOs of cable providers like Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, Cox, and Dish. They demanded to know if those providers are “planning to continue carrying Fox News, Newsmax, and OANN… beyond any contract renewal date” and “if so, why?”
The news comes in advance of Wednesday’s House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on “traditional media’s role in promoting disinformation and extremism.”
This sequence of events is ominous because a similar matched set of hearings and interrogations back in 2017 — when Senators like Mazie Hirono at a Judiciary Committee hearing demanded that platforms like Google and Facebook come up with a “mission statement” to prevent the “foment of discord” — accelerated the “content moderation” movement that now sees those same platforms regularly act as de facto political censors.
Sequences like this — government “requests” of speech reduction, made to companies subject to federal regulation — make the content moderation decisions of private firms a serious First Amendment issue. Censorship advocates may think this is purely a private affair, in which the only speech rights that matter are those of companies like Twitter and Google, but any honest person should be able to see this for what it is.
In the last go-around, Virginia Senator Mark Warner prepared a lengthy white paper called “Potential Policy Proposals for Regulation of Social Media and Technology Firms,” that among other things considered making the tech giants more susceptible to tort claims, as well as beefing up FTC authority over the firms. This was the sword raised over the head of Silicon Valley as it considered whether or not it had a duty to implement those Senatorial demands for plans to prevent the “foment of discord.”
The line to potential government action isn’t quite as direct this time, but it’s notable that Blair Levin, the former chief of staff of the F.C.C. under Bill Clinton, said that this week’s hearings could serve as a first step to what the New York Times called “meaningful action.”
“You have to establish a factual record,” Levin said of this week’s hearings, “and then try to figure out: What are the appropriate roles for the government in changing that dynamic?”
Press freedoms have been in steep decline for a while. Barack Obama’s record targeting of whistleblower sources (and in some cases, journalists themselves) using the Espionage Act was a first serious sign, followed by Donald Trump’s prosecution of Julian Assange. We progressed to a particularly dangerous new stage in recent years, with oligopolistic tech companies, urged on by politicians, engaging in anticompetitive agreements to suppress political voices on both the left and the right.
The so-called media reporters at major organizations like CNN and the New York Times have mostly either been silent or have played cheerleading roles during the most eyebrow-raising recent developments: the decision by Facebook and Twitter to block access to a pre-election New York Post story about Hunter Biden, the stunning exercise in monopoly influence by Amazon and Apple in swallowing up the “free speech” platform Parler, the banning of Socialist Worker Party accounts in England and the U.S., and the shutdown of livestream capability by alternative media outlets (and the removal of celebrated footage shot from the Capitol riot by people like Status Coup videographer Jon Farina), a story that amazingly only got major play at… Fox News.
All of these stories share the same theme: small, unelected groups of private executives making sweeping decisions about speech, cheered on by Democratic Party politicians. If it proceeds to its logical conclusion, it poses a much more serious problem for society than even Fox News at its worst.
The campaign against Fox is being framed as part of an effort to combat what Eshoo and McNerney characterize as “misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories, and lies.” There are so many problems with this point of view, it’s hard to know where to start.
For one thing, complainants rarely make an effort to distinguish between opinions they find obnoxious, and actual lies or errors. This blurring of lines between “misinformation” or “disinformation,” and reporting that simply has political effects deemed deleterious by Democrats and their pals in media, has been going on since 2016, when for instance the leaked-but-true Podesta and DNC emails were regularly described as elements of a “misinformation campaign.”
It was the same with the Hunter Biden story last autumn, where there was no evidence that any of the material was false, but newspapers regularly described it as reading “suspiciously like disinformation” or a “misinformation test for social media.”
Take a look, for instance, at the timeline of “Fox News misinformation in 2020,” put out by Media Matters, a media-criticism agency founded by notorious once-Republican, now-Democratic Party attack dog David Brock. Here are some things listed as “misinformation,” a word that in almost every dictionary carries a connotation of “false” or “incorrect” communication. These are verbatim entries from December, 2020:
— A Fox “straight news” program mentioned Benghazi more than the over 3,100 people who died from the pandemic the day before. [Outnumbered Overtime, 12/10/20]
— Laura Ingraham encourages viewers to gather for the holidays. [The Ingraham Angle, 12/16/20]
— Fox & Friends goes full War on Christmas, after over 2,600 Americans died from the pandemic the day before. [Fox & Friends, 12/9/20]
— Dana Perino: Biden should show “a little bit of grace and gratitude” to Trump for COVID-19 vaccines. [The Daily Briefing, 12/8/20]
These are political, not factual complaints, as is Sullivan’s beef that Tucker Carlson “tries to sow doubt about the prevalence of white supremacy,” or that Sean Hannity likes to “blast Biden as ‘cognitively struggling.’” As to that last point, news features wondering about Donald Trump’s mental fitness were commonplace for four years (hell, even I wrote one), as were “Trump with tiny wang” cartoons, and “Trump touchingly gay with Putin” jokes. Confusing that which you find politically offensive with actually erroneous or deceptive reporting has become so common, even media professionals don’t seem to care about the difference anymore.
Those gunning for the removal of Fox, Newsmax, and other outlets are clearly not interested in getting there by way of the law. They want to take advantage of the hyper-concentration of power among media distributors — the tech giants like Apple and Amazon that can zap a massively successful app like Parler overnight, and the confederation of cable carriers like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon that hold dominion over broadcast networks.
We have to ask politicians like Eshoo and critics like Sullivan and Boot: where exactly do they want massive conservative audiences to go, if Fox is removed from the air?
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Matt, thank you so much for your reporting on this subject. Although our politics differ greatly ( I am libertarian), I subscribe to your substack for just this reason. I find that the more I read, the more we have in common. Freedom of speech has always been a hallmark of this country. It alarms me to see so many businesses, groups and officials willing to do away with it in such a cavalier manner. There are many things said and published that I find deplorable and without merit, but I will forever defend the right to say them.
At what point will this be brought to the Supreme Court? I'm not sure if this is a just Democrats making the move here. I am of the opinion that the entire "insurrection" was manipulated by both right and Left politicians. My thinking is that the Republican politicians have painted their selves in corner with their own base, and the Democrats are being exposed more by voices from the left than they are by right-wing media (nobody from the left listen to them). So, you manufacture this entire "insurrection" business. Then you get a movement for censorship, and who are the two primary targets of this newly empowered cancel culture - right-wing media and left wing media exposing the outright corruption and hypocrisy of the Democrat party. Solving two problems at once. Republicans and Democrats just want to serve money interest in peace without worry about the citizenry demanding things from them - like accountability.