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‘Don’t book liars’: Soledad O’Brien challenges media at House hearing on disinformation

A House subcommittee hearing Wednesday on media disinformation, especially in cable news, broke down predictably along partisan lines. But representatives and other speakers agreed that the issue is of major concern in an age of increasingly polarized media and amplification of falsehoods. 

Much of the disagreement stemmed from a letter sent this week by California Democratic committee members Anna Eshoo and Jerry McNerney to distributors of pay TV and streaming services decrying a “right-wing media ecosystem” that they claim is more susceptible to disinformation and lies. They ask why they continue to carry “right-wing media outlets” such as Fox NewsNewsmax and One America News Network (OAN).

The letter focuses on false information about COVID-19 and the presidential election, claiming that hindered the public-health response to the pandemic and led to the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection. (The letter cites a USA TODAY story in one of its 16 footnotes.)

Journalist Soledad O'Brien told a Congressional subcommittee Wednesday that news organizations must make a greater effort to deny liars a media platform.

“Partisanship and polarization in media has been building for years, but these more recent events reflect a point of frightening escalation,” U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), said during the remote hearing. Citing witness testimony, he added: “Media companies have increasingly set aside journalistic standards to chase audience share and higher profits.”

Ranking minority member Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), objected to the hearing, titled “Fanning the Flames: Disinformation and Extremism in the Media,”  and called the letter a one-sided affront to a free press.

“In all my time on this committee, there’s never been a more obvious and direct attack on the First Amendment,” she said. “Condemning the Jan. 6 attack and upholding truth and facts, it’s a shared, bipartisan goal. If the majority was really interested in a meaningful dialogue, you wouldn’t schedule a hyper-partisan hearing to shame and blame. You wouldn’t be sending letters pressuring private companies to block conservative media outlets.”

Longtime journalist Soledad O’Brien, host of the public-affairs talk program “Matter of Fact,” said news organizations have a major responsibility to make sure they don’t provide a platform for disinformation.

George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley criticized a letter sent by Democratic members of Congress to distributors of pay TV and streaming services during a congressional hearing Tuesday.

“Congress cannot and should not regulate journalism in defiance of the First Amendment, but here is what we can do: Don’t book liars or advance lies. Cover the fact that lies and propaganda are being disseminated but do not book people to lie on your show because it elevates them and presents a lie as another side,” said O’Brien, who said the problem has been aggravated by a steep decline in reliable local news organizations.

George Washington University Law School professor Jonathan Turley, who spoke against impeachment in former President Donald Trump’s first trial, took a harsh view of the Democrats’ letter to the service distributors, which include AT&T, Verizon, Apple and Amazon.

“From the perspective of free speech and the free press, the letter is not just chilling, it’s positively glacial,” he said. “I admit that I may be a relic in my views, but I continue to believe the greatest protection against bad speech is better speech.”

Kristina Urquiza, who co-founded the grass-roots, non-profit Marked by COVID to tell the stories of people affected by coronavirus and push for better public-health policy, blames Trump and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey for messaging last spring that she says led her father, Mark Anthony Urquiza, to drop his guard. He died of COVID on June 30.

Kristin Urquiza, seen speaking at the 2020 Democratic National Convention, blames the messaging of former President Donald Trump for her father's death from COVID, but says his cable-news enablers bear some responsibility.

“The primary person and entity responsible for my father’s death and (that of) hundreds of thousands of people in the United States is Donald Trump and his administration,” said Urquiza, who criticized Trump during a speech at the 2020 Democratic National Convention. “To the people in this room and this sacred body who blindly followed the president without questioning, who put party over country, you and your colleagues are enablers. To the media, and in particular cable news, you were complicit. These actors may not have pulled the trigger that pointed at my father’s head, but they indeed drove the getaway car.”

Before Wednesday’s hearing, both Fox and Newsmax responded to the Democrats’ letter to TV distributors.

“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,” Fox said in a statement. “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.” 

Newsmax said: “The House Democrats’ attack on free speech and basic First Amendment rights should send chills down the spines of all Americans. Newsmax reported fairly and accurately on allegations and claims made by both sides during the recent election contest.”

OAN has not responded to a USA TODAY request for comment.

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