Our ongoing festival of cancellation now brings calls that your local cable company should no longer carry Fox News Channel — and should kick off One America News Network, Fox Business Network, and Newsmax TV, as well.
Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times writes, “I’d like to see pressure on advertisers to withdraw from Fox News so long as it functions as an extremist madrasa, and cable providers should be asked why they distribute channels that peddle lies.”
Max Boot of the Washington Post contends that “large cable companies such as Comcast and Charter Spectrum, which carry Fox News and provide much of its revenue in the form of user fees, need to step in and kick Fox News off. And if smaller competitors such as One America News and Newsmax continue to incite viewers, they, too, should be booted off.”
And Anand Giridharadas of MSNBC goes even further, asking, “Should Fox News be allowed to exist? Brain-mashing as a business model shouldn’t be legal.”
All of these commentators should refamiliarize themselves with the First Amendment, and then follow up with a closer reading of the laws and Supreme Court decisions that have shaped the interpretation of that basic right, as well as the FCC’s regulatory authority. They might also consider that their own jobs depend upon the social acceptance of free speech as a value. The tools of authority, once taken up on the left, will inevitably tempt a response from the right.
First, whether Kristof, Boot, and Giridharadas realize it or not, they are calling for more powerful concentration of corporate power over the country’s cable television news. AT&T owns WarnerMedia, which owns CNN. Comcast owns NBC, CNBC, and MSNBC. Charter Communications owns Spectrum News, a slate of regional cable channels, including NY1. If any of those cable carriers stopped carrying Fox News, they would be in violation of FCC rules prohibiting them from giving preferential treatment to their own outlets.
The folly of this is illustrated by Oliver Darcy, CNN’s “media reporter,” declaring “it is time TV carriers face questions for lending their platforms to dishonest companies that profit off of disinformation and conspiracy theories.” He fumed that AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Charter, and Dish did not respond to his questions. In other words, a CNN employee is angry that the parent company of his employer isn’t taking action to shut down one of his competitors.
The Federal Trade Commission Act empowers the FCC to “prevent unfair methods of competition and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce,” and cable providers refusing to carry networks that are rivals of their subsidiaries would certainly qualify.
A few years ago, Bloomberg filed FCC complaints about Comcast, contending that the cable carrier was putting its own business news channel, CNBC, in the prime spot on the metaphorical dial in a cluster with the other news channels, and casting Bloomberg News Channel to the cable equivalent of the hinterlands on channel 251. In 2013, the FCC ruled that Comcast had to put Bloomberg near the other news channels. If the FCC saw unfair practices in Comcast putting Bloomberg in a far-off corner of its channel menu, how do you think it’ll respond to a carrier dropping a channel that competes with one of its subsidiaries entirely?
The one cable carrier that did respond to Darcy, CenturyLink, got it right, stating that the company was committed to providing “a variety of broadcast channels covering thousands of topics” and that as a company, it does not “endorse specific media or outlets.” Americans do not need cable-company executives deciding what is and what is not fit for news coverage. Consumers have the option of changing the channel.
As for Giridharadas’ authoritarian suggestion that Fox News should simply not be allowed to exist, the FCC explicitly states, “the FCC’s authority to respond to these complaints [of bias, inaccuracy, or poor coverage] is narrow in scope, and the agency is prohibited by law from engaging in censorship or infringing on First Amendment rights of the press. Moreover, the FCC cannot interfere with a broadcaster’s selection and presentation of news or commentary.” The agency further elaborates that it is “barred by law from trying to prevent the broadcast of any point of view. The Communications Act prohibits the FCC from censoring broadcast material, in most cases, and from making any regulation that would interfere with freedom of speech.”
There’s plenty to criticize in cable-news programming. But it is the job of the people responsible for the networks to decide where to draw the lines of editorial content and reliability. There is no justification for corporate titans or the FCC stepping in and shutting them down. Those calling for these actions demonstrate a galling contempt for the constitutionally protected right of free speech — and the disturbing illiberal trend in the country’s public debate.