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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.
Accusing one’s domestic opponents of being subversives and domestic terrorists is by far the most common way that despots on every continent justify their censorship and silencing campaigns of oppositional media outlets. In 2014, the French journalist Valeria Costa-Kostritsky warned in the Index on Censorship that anti-terrorism laws and accusations of promoting subversion were becoming the primary means which authoritarian states from Turkey and Jordan to Russia and the UAE use to justify the silencing of journalists:
Anti-terror legislation seems to be the perfect tool for a state seeking to crack down on opposition. “It’s so elusive. You can [see] anything as terrorist propaganda. There needn’t be any evidence of violence, any praise of violence. Plus, if you blame someone for having a connection with the [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] the public buys that argument easily, especially in a country that is suffering from terrorism, as Turkey is,” said Sevgi Akarçeşme, former editor-in-chief of Turkey’s Today’s Zaman (the English-language edition of daily Zaman), who had her newspaper taken over by the government in March 2016.
A similar means used by repressive governments to silence disfavored media outlets is to claim they are promoting “extremism.” As Costa-Kostritsky detailed:
There’s another word one can use to browse through reports published on the [Mapping Media Freedom] map: “extremism”. Anti-extremism legislation is used to intimidate journalists in post-Soviet countries, particularly in Russia. On the map, of the 35 incidents flagged with “extremism”, 11 took place in Russia, and seven in Crimea, others include Belgium, Italy, Hungary, France and Spain. Five reports connecting the media to “extremism” took place during the first half of 2016. They include website closures and journalists being put on a list of extremists. In Russia, most cases using anti-extremism legislations against journalists happen via Roskomnadzor, the national media regulator.
And accusing journalists of spreading “fake news” — always a dangerously vague term from its inception — is equally commonplace when government authorities want to silence media outlets. The Washington Post reported that “as 2019 draws to a close, there are 30 journalists in jail worldwide on charges of ‘false news’ — or, as it’s also called these days, ‘fake news.’” In sum:
It has now become commonplace to throw around fake-news accusations in the United States. But in other countries around the world — like Egypt, Turkey, Somalia and Cameroon — such charges can have very chilling and stifling impacts on the press, according to an annual report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
In Egypt — where General-turned-President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi has been overseeing a crackdown that human rights groups say is harsher than any before — there are 21 journalists in jail for allegedly publishing “false news,” according to the CPJ’s data. In practice, press freedom advocates say, these charges stem from a simple fact: The journalists published news that Sisi didn’t like.
In a passage that the Post would only publish about foreign countries but never about House Democrats, even though it now applies equally, they observed: “There is a serious global problem of disinformation spreading online and sowing distrust and sectarianism. The problem, say press advocates, is that the laws regulating fake news all too often are a means of stifling the media rather than fostering a more transparent environment online.”
This framework is hardly rare in the west either. When the Obama administration collaborated with the UK Government in 2013 to detain my husband David Miranda at Heathrow Airport in connection with the work he was doing in the Snowden reporting, they cited an anti-terrorism law to justify his detention, and repeatedly threatened to prosecute him for terrorism if he did not cooperate by providing all of his passwords to them. He ultimately prevailed in his lawsuit against the U.K. Government on the ground that it constitutes an illegal assault on press freedoms and human rights to abuse anti-terrorism frameworks to intimidate or silence journalists.
Justifying the silencing of journalists by accusing them of inciting domestic terrorism and extremism is now the most common means used globally for censorsing the press. The Committee to Protect Journalists in 2013 said they had “tracked a significant rise in journalist imprisonments.” The culprit, said the group, was “the expansion of anti-terrorism and national security laws worldwide” after the 9/11 attack, which had been repeatedly abused to criminalize media outlets. “The number of journalists jailed worldwide hit 232 in 2012, 132 of whom were held on anti-terror or other national security charges.” In sum: “CPJ’s analysis has found that governments have exploited these laws to silence critical journalists.”
Are there conspiracy theories and disinformation sometimes found on the conservative cable outlets which House Democrats want taken off the air? Of course there are: all media outlets disseminate conspiracy theories and fake news at times. MSNBC and CNN spent four years endorsing the most deranged conspiracy theory imaginable, one with very toxic roots in the Cold War: namely, the McCarthyite script that the Kremlin had taken over control of key U.S. institutions through sexual blackmail over the President, invasions into the nation’s heating system and electric grid, and criminal conspiracy between Moscow and the Trump campaign to hack into Democrats’ emails.
All of that was false, just as the one-month tale told over and over by the media about a pro-Trump mob murdering Brian Sicknick by bludgeoning him to death with a fire extinguisher was false — a story which remains unretracted or corrected by most who spread it.
Just imagine if, during the Trump years, the GOP Senate had abused its power to bully cable outlets into removing MSNBC from their platforms, or banning liberal journalists and activists from using social media platforms, on the grounds that they were spreading conspiracy theories and fake news. It is hard to overstate how extreme the rhetoric would have been that Trump and the Republicans were engaged in authoritarian measures to destroy free speech and a free press.
And I would have joined in those denunciations (as I did with the Assange prosecution): as much as I loathe so much of what those outlets do, it is not the role of the government to regulate let alone silence them. The corrective is for journalists to rebuild trust and faith with the public by exposing their misinformation and proving to the public that they will do accurate and reliable reporting regardless of which faction is aggrandized or angered.
But corporate media outlets and Democrats (excuse the redundancy) who spent the last four years posturing as virulent defenders of press freedoms never meant it. Like so much of what they claimed to believe, it was fraudulent. The proof is that they are now mute, if not supportive, as Democrats use their status as majority party to launch an assault against press freedoms far more egregious than anything Trump got close to doing.
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For the third time in less than five months, the U.S. Congress has summoned the CEOs of social media companies to appear before them, with the explicit intent to pressure and coerce them to censor more content from their platforms. On March 25, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will interrogate Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, Facebooks’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai at a hearing which the Committee announced will focus “on misinformation and disinformation plaguing online platforms.”
The Committee’s Chair, Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), and the two Chairs of the Subcommittees holding the hearings, Mike Doyle (D-PA) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), said in a joint statement that the impetus was “falsehoods about the COVID-19 vaccine” and “debunked claims of election fraud.” They argued that “these online platforms have allowed misinformation to spread, intensifying national crises with real-life, grim consequences for public health and safety,” adding: “This hearing will continue the Committee’s work of holding online platforms accountable for the growing rise of misinformation and disinformation.”
House Democrats have made no secret of their ultimate goal with this hearing: to exert control over the content on these online platforms. “Industry self-regulation has failed,” they said, and therefore “we must begin the work of changing incentives driving social media companies to allow and even promote misinformation and disinformation.” In other words, they intend to use state power to influence and coerce these companies to change which content they do and do not allow to be published.
I’ve written and spoken at length over the past several years about the dangers of vesting the power in the state, or in tech monopolies, to determine what is true and false, or what constitutes permissible opinion and what does not. I will not repeat those points here.
Instead, the key point raised by these last threats from House Democrats is an often-overlooked one: while the First Amendment does not apply to voluntary choices made by a private company about what speech to allow or prohibit, it does bar the U.S. Government from coercing or threatening such companies to censor. In other words, Congress violates the First Amendment when it attempts to require private companies to impose viewpoint-based speech restrictions which the government itself would be constitutionally barred from imposing. . .
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