The fight against election misinformation has a new target: your cable company.
Critics of networks like Fox News and Newsmax argue that the outlets fueled uncertainty about election results and should be dropped by cable providers, just as Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. have begun to more aggressively police their content. After this month’s riot at the U.S. Capitol, they say, telecom giants should rethink the programming they beam to millions of homes.
It won’t be an easy battle. Fox News was the most watched cable-news network in the U.S. last year, and any attempt to squelch the outlet will be seen as an attack on free speech. No cable TV distributor has said they’re even thinking of dropping the network. And there are plenty of reasons why, including statutes enforced by the FCC.
Some of the biggest pay-TV providers, including AT&T Inc. and Comcast Corp., own their own news channels. If they drop a competing network, its owner could file a complaint with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, arguing that they’re violating a rule prohibiting them from giving preferential treatment to their own outlets.
Even providers without their own news networks say their hands are tied.
“Network owners (and their editorial boards) are responsible for the content that they deliver to us,” Dish Network Corp. said in a statement. “Provided that the content is legal, contractually we generally do not have the ability to unilaterally edit content or remove channels from our lineup.”
No distributor has reached out to Fox about canceling, according to a person familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified.
But the drumbeat for cable companies to act has grown louder. Oliver Darcy, a media reporter at Fox News rival CNN, said after the riot that “it is time TV carriers face questions for lending their platforms to dishonest companies that profit off of disinformation and conspiracy theories.”
‘Should Be Booted’
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof said that “cable providers should be asked why they distribute channels that peddle lies.” And Washington Post columnist and CNN analyst Max Boot wrote that cable providers should “step in and kick Fox News off.” If Newsmax and rival One America News Network “continue to incite viewers, they, too, should be booted off,” he added.
Dropping Fox News has been discussed on customer forums at AT&T and Comcast, and everyone from Mother Jones to Breitbart News weighed in on the idea over the past week.
OANN President Charles Herring denies that his company’s programming spurred anyone to storm the U.S. Capitol, calling the notion “absurd.”
Though Fox News’s prime-time commentators raised the specter of the election being stolen from Donald Trump, the network called the race for Joe Biden on Nov. 7. In fact, it called a key state, Arizona, well before other outlets.
Newsmax described calls to drop the channel from cable packages as “blatant censorship” and said it never denied the election results, though it did call the race for Biden far later than other channels.
“We called all contested states for Biden as they were certified and accepted him as president-elect on Dec. 14, following the Electoral College vote,” Newsmax spokesman Brian Peterson said.
‘A Lot of Flak’
But pay-TV providers could have more power than they let on, according to John Bergmayer, legal director at the public-interest group Public Knowledge.
The law, he said, “doesn’t prevent cable operators from making choices based around the quality of the content itself. However, they’d have to deal with a lot of flak, not just from unhappy subscribers but from politicians.” Bergmayer added that it’s possible that channel owners would file complaints, “which can be costly to defend against even if they’re unsuccessful.”
Before the Capitol riot, cable and satellite TV providers went largely overlooked in the debate over how to shut down misinformation, while Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube have lived under a microscope.
TV companies would likely prefer to keep it that way. When asked whether they would continue to carry the networks, AT&T and Comcast declined to comment. AT&T owns DirecTV, as well as CNN. Comcast, meanwhile, owns MSNBC.
Charter Communications Inc., another major cable provider, didn’t respond to a request for comment. (Bloomberg Television, part of Bloomberg LP, also is carried by pay-TV distributors.)
Lumen Technologies, a smaller provider formerly known as CenturyLink, said it offers a variety of networks on a wide range of topics.
“We do not endorse specific media or outlets, but instead support viewers’ access and choice,” the company said in an email.
While social-media giants can ban anyone who violates their rules -- including the president himself -- cable companies face a more complex calculus if they want to remove a channel.
In addition to rules enforced by the FCC, Fox News’s owner has leverage. If Comcast tried to drop the network, Fox Corp. could pull its other channels. So -- in attempting to remove Fox News host Sean Hannity -- Comcast could suddenly find it has deprived customers of NFL games on the Fox network.
Meanwhile, smaller networks like Newsmax and OANN could protect themselves by paying TV providers to be carried -- instead of the usual arrangement of getting paid by them. The FCC’s so-called leased-access laws require a cable TV provider to carry independent channels that are willing to pay for distribution.
The cable industry’s lobbying group has criticized such rules, arguing that they put TV providers “at risk of reputational harm.”
“Even though the content is beyond the operators’ control, subscribers may nevertheless attribute the content to the operators,” the industry group, called NCTA, said in a 2019 filing with the FCC.
Under the rules, RT -- formerly known as Russia Today -- was able to pay to secure a spot on American TV services. In 2017, federal intelligence authorities released a report that tied RT to Russia’s alleged efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. election. Since then, Congress passed legislation to no longer require cable operators from leasing space for programming owned, controlled or financed by the Russian government, and some cable operators have stopped carrying RT.
Newsmax declined to say whether the network pays to be carried by TV providers. Herring, the head of OANN, has said that his channel gets paid about 15 cents per subscriber by the companies.
Herring added that his employees learned about the Capitol insurrection at the same time as everyone else.
“Our own staff was completely caught off guard by the breach at the Capitol,” he said. “We certainly did not encourage it.”
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