The top Republican House member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday criticized an attempt by House Democrats to pressure television carriers to deplatform Fox News and two conservative cable news channels.
Ranking member Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) expressed her concerns regarding letters sent by two Democratic members on the panel to 12 cable, satellite, and streaming companies. The letter accused the companies of not taking steps to combat the spread of what the Democrats said was “misinformation.” They demanded answers to why carriers were offering their services to these television outlets.
“Elected officials using their platform to pressure private companies to censor media outlets they disagree with—that sounds a lot like actions from the Chinese Communist Party, not duly-elected representatives of the United States Congress,” McMorris Rodgers said during a committee hearing on disinformation and extremism in the media.
“Here we cherish free speech and a free independent press. We believe in dialogue and in the battle of ideas. Rather than censor and silence constitutionally protected speech, the answer is more speech. That’s the American way.”
She reminded the committee that it was their duty to uphold the First Amendment.
“It’s foundational to our personal rights and liberties. So, we should all be troubled today on what appears to be an attack on the First Amendment by elected officials to coerce private companies to censor political speech,” she said.
The letters were sent by Reps. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.) and Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.), who claim that right-leaning Fox, Newsmax, and One America News had spread “misinformation” after the November 2020 elections and about COVID-19.
They asked carriers to provide details on what moral or ethical principles they apply in deciding which channels to carry, how many subscribers tuned into the networks in the weeks preceding the presidential election, and whether they’ve taken adverse actions against any channel in the wake of the election or the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol.
In separate statements to The Epoch Times, spokespeople from the three news outlets decried the lawmakers’ conduct. The spokesperson for Fox News said that the lawmakers’ actions set “a terrible precedent.”
Meanwhile, One America News President Charles Herring told The Epoch Times that “when government officials want to silence media, especially media that opposes their false narratives, it’s nothing short of an attack on our democracy and freedom of press.”
Eshoo pushed back on criticism that they violated the First Amendment, adding that she had asked First Amendment experts at the Congressional Research Service to review their letters for violations.
She said the experts informed her that their analysis so far did not indicate that there were any “First Amendment red flags” and that she would share the legal analysis in due course.
“I’d like this to be understood, the idea that members asking questions violates the First Amendment is absolutely absurd. It’s our job to ask questions,” Eshoo said.
Meanwhile, McNerney defended their letter saying that they were trying to understand how “disinformation spreads” and the role of various companies in enabling its spread.
McMorris Rodgers on Feb. 24 sent a letter to acting Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel asking her to condemn Eshoo and McNerney’s letter.
“As Acting Chairwoman of the Commission, it is incumbent upon you to use your position to preserve and protect our fundamental freedoms that are protected by the First Amendment. You can, and must, denounce any attempts by government officials to use their power to threaten a free press at such an important time in our Nation’s history,” she wrote in the letter, which was cosigned by Communications and Technology Republican Subcommittee Leader Bob Latta (R-Ohio).
Rosenworcel and her staff did not respond to The Epoch Times’ request to comment on the House Democrats’ letters.
However, FCC Commissioners Brendan Carr and Nathan Simington in separate statements characterized the lawmakers pressure as “troubling” because it seeks to “stifle political speech and independent news judgment.”
Carr said that the two House Democrats had “selectively targeted” several news media outlets for their coverage of political events, saying that such actions send a clear and troubling message of “these regulated entities will pay a price if the targeted newsrooms do not conform to Democrats’ preferred political narratives.”
“This is a chilling transgression of the free speech rights that every media outlet in this country enjoys,” he said.
Simington echoed Carr’s concerns, characterizing the two House Democrats’ conduct as “worrying.” He said the lawmakers were applying “overbroad and vague label of ‘misinformation’ to any media reportage that calls into question their preferred political narratives, and have sought to intimidate into silence those who would distribute on their platforms disfavored points of view.”
“This is particularly concerning because the House Energy and Commerce Committee supervises the Communications Act, and their statement could be read to imply that action will be taken under the Communications Act should the recipients not agree in advance to chill their speech,” he said (pdf).