Houston Chronicle

Congress presses cable firms on election claims

- By Rachel Abrams

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 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 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,” Reps. Anna G. Eshoo and Jerry McNerney, both of California, wrote in the letter, which was reviewed by the New York Times.

None of the companies to which the letter was sent immediatel­y replied to requests for comment.

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 election technology company Smartmatic. In the suit, the company accused Fox News, its parent company Fox Corp., 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.

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 Trump’s legal representa­tives, Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, in separate lawsuits, each seeking more than $1 billion in damages. Both appeared as guests on Fox News, Fox Business, Newsmax and OAN in the weeks after the election.

On Monday, Dominion sued Mike Lindell, chief executive of MyPillow, alleging that he defamed Dominion with baseless claims of election fraud involving its voting machines.

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