While “big tech” has received the lion’s share of criticism for doing too little to combat disinformation in recent years, less talked about has been the role traditional cable TV giants play in circulating dangerous, bad faith nonsense. Especially in an era where “news” empires like Fox News, OANN, and Newsmax are all engaged in a race to the bottom.
Hoping to shift some attention to the role these cable and streaming TV companies are playing in our information apocalypse in the wake of the Capitol riots, Representatives Anna Eshoo and Jerry McNerney fired off a series of letters on Monday to the CEOs of AT&T, Verizon, Cox, Altice, Comcast, Dish, Charter (Spectrum), Roku, Apple, Google, and Hulu.
“Nearly half of Americans get their news primarily from TV,” the lawmakers wrote. “However, not all TV news sources are the same. Some purported news outlets have long been misinformation rumor mills and conspiracy theory hotbeds that produce content that leads to real harm.”
Eshoo and McNerney also noted that carrying conspiratorial channels not only helps foster radicalization among the “alternative facts” set, it poses a direct threat to public health.
“A media watchdog found over 250 cases of COVID-19 misinformation on Fox News in just one five-day period, and economists demonstrated that Fox News had a demonstrable impact on non-compliance with public health guidelines,” the lawmakers wrote.
As the US media has slowly imploded due to lack of funding, consolidation, and predatory hedge funds, bad actors have rushed to fill the void. In many instances this erosion has had a measurable impact on public division, knowledge, and even election outcomes.
All eleven CEOs were asked to explain why they had “done nothing” to help counter the bigotry, disinformation, and hate speech being circulated routinely by outlets like OANN, and to provide ethical justifications for this apathy in responses due by March 8.
“What moral or ethical principles do you apply in deciding which channels to carry or when to take adverse actions against a channel?” the lawmakers asked.
The letters were sent ahead of a Wednesday House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee hearing on traditional media’s role in promoting disinformation and extremism.
Shaming the cable and broadcast industry into more ethical behavior so far hasn’t accomplished much. For example, Fox News’ reaction to years of criticism was to recently double down on the number of prime time hours dedicated to dodgy disinformation, culminating last week in patently false claims about Texas’ recent energy grid implosion.
In the policy arena, a silver bullet solution is hard to come by. Largely because any new laws or restrictions intended to prevent news networks from carrying dodgy purveyors of disinformation would likely run afoul of the First Amendment. As such most wouldn’t survive a legal challenge, especially given the Supreme Court’s rightward lurch in recent years.
That’s not to say there aren’t solutions, if regulators are willing to pursue them. For example, lawmakers could impose rules requiring more transparency in advertising funding, making it easier to shame advertisers who pitch products alongside “news” such as OANN’s claim that Covid was covertly developed in a North Carolina lab as part of a “deep state” plot.
Rules mandating that providers offer cable channels “a la carte” might also work, Christopher Terry, Assistant Professor of Media Law at the University of Minnesota told Motherboard.
“You'd kill those stations in a heartbeat if they didn't get bundled in every cable package,” Terry said. “All of those outlets thrive in the delivery to the audience they get by being included in every package, but in an ala carte cable package, only a handful of the true believer crowd would be willing to pay extra for them.”
“Imagine if they had to survive in an actual market based scenario where the number of viewers they could have was limited by the people who would pay to have access to that specific content,” he added. “You'd cut them off at the knees and use their own rhetoric to do so while making cable companies more accountable to the local customer base.”
Other experts continue to argue that the best way to counter disinformation is to spend more time and money building genuine, responsible journalism. Especially in local US markets, where traditional journalism has steadily been replaced with either a growing crop of dodgy broadcasters like Sinclair Broadcasting—or something notably worse.
In a statement, FOX News said: “As the most watched cable news channel throughout 2020, FOX News Media provided millions of Americans with in-depth reporting, breaking news coverage and clear opinion. For individual members of Congress to highlight political speech they do not like and demand cable distributors engage in viewpoint discrimination sets a terrible precedent.”
This post has been updated with comment from FOX News.