House Democrats Press Cable Providers on Election Fraud Claims

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Before a hearing scheduled for Wednesday, Democratic members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee asked cable companies what they did to combat “the spread of misinformation.”

President Trump’s supporters approach the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Credit...Kenny Holston for The New York Times

Rachel Abrams

Feb. 22, 2021Updated 3:11 p.m. ET

Three months ago, federal lawmakers grilled Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, and Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief, about the misinformation that had appeared on their platforms. Now, a congressional committee has scheduled a hearing to focus on the role of companies that provide cable television service in the spread of falsehoods concerning the 2020 election.

In advance of the Wednesday hearing, called “Fanning the Flames: Disinformation and Extremism in the Media,” members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent a letter on Monday to Comcast, AT&T, Spectrum, Dish, Verizon, Cox and Altice, asking about their role in “the spread of dangerous misinformation.”

The committee members also sent the letter to Roku, Amazon, Apple, Google and Hulu, digital companies that distribute cable programming.

The scrutiny of cable providers took on new urgency after supporters of former President Donald J. Trump, who repeatedly promoted the debunked claim that the election was rigged, stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.

“To our knowledge, the cable, satellite and over-the-top companies that disseminate these media outlets to American viewers have done nothing in response to the misinformation aired by these outlets,” two Democratic representatives from California, Anna G. Eshoo and Jerry McNerney, wrote in the letter, which was reviewed by The New York Times.

Newsmax, a right-wing cable channel carried by AT&T, CenturyLink, Charter, Comcast, Dish and Verizon, had a surge in ratings in November because of programs that embraced the former president’s claims of voter fraud. One America News Network, a right-wing outlet carried by AT&T, CenturyLink and Verizon, also promoted the false theory.

Fox News, the most-watched cable news network, which is available from all major carriers, was one of five defendants in a $2.7 billion defamation lawsuit filed this month by the election technology company Smartmatic. In the suit, the company accused Fox News, its parent company Fox Corporation, three Fox anchors and two frequent Fox guests of promoting false claims about the election and Smartmatic’s role in it. (Fox has denied the claims and filed a motion to dismiss the suit.)

Congress can raise the issue of whether cable providers bear responsibility for the programs they deliver to millions of Americans, but it may have no way to force them to drop networks that have spread misinformation. And unlike broadcast stations, cable channels do not have licenses that are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission.

The lawmakers’ letter asks the companies, “What steps did you take prior to, on, and following the November 3, 2020 elections and the January 6, 2021 attacks to monitor, respond to, and reduce the spread of disinformation, including encouragement or incitement of violence by channels your company disseminates to millions of Americans?”

“Are you planning to continue carrying Fox News, OANN, and Newsmax on your platform both now and beyond the renewal date?” the letter continues. “If so, why?”

Fox News decried the Congressional effort. “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,” the network said in a statement. Newsmax defended its election coverage as accurate and called the letter an “attack on free speech.” A spokeswoman for Comcast declined to comment. None of the other companies to which the letter was sent replied to inquiries from The New York Times.

Blair Levin, who served as the F.C.C.’s chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, said a hearing could be a first step toward meaningful action. “You have to establish a factual record that on both the election and Covid, tens of millions of Americans believe things that are just factually not true, and then try to figure out: ‘What are the appropriate roles for the government in changing that dynamic?’” Mr. Levin said.

For now, defamation lawsuits filed by private companies have taken the lead in the fight against disinformation promoted on some cable channels.

Last month, Dominion Voting Systems, another election technology company that has figured prominently in conspiracy theories about the 2020 vote, sued two of Mr. Trump’s legal representatives, Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sidney Powell, in separate lawsuits, each seeking more than $1 billion in damages. On Monday, Dominion sued Mike Lindell, the chief executive of MyPillow, alleging that he defamed Dominion with baseless claims of election fraud involving its voting machines. All three appeared as guests on cable networks in the weeks after the election.

Brendan Carr, a Republican F.C.C. commissioner, blasted the letter from the House Democrats in a statement on Monday, calling it “a chilling transgression of the free speech rights that every media outlet in this country enjoys.”

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