During a subcommittee hearing on misinformation, disinformation, and extremism in journalism, a Columbia University professor advocated for the regulation of news media to create “a more vibrant, truthful news environment.”
Emily Bell (pictured) is a professor of journalism at Columbia University, and founding director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. Prior to her appointment at Columbia, she was an award-winning writer and editor at Guardian News and Media in London. She offered her comments at a February 24 hearing titled, “Fanning the Flames: Disinformation and Extremism in the Media”, hosted by the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology of the House’s Committee on Energy and Commerce. Bell testified as a witness.
She sees a “policy role” for government to play in cracking down on misinformation, disinformation, and extremism in journalism:
I also believe that it is not just down to individual choice or even the free market and choices made by companies. I believe that there is policy role here which is not about infringing the First Amendment but which is about strengthening ways in which we can have a more vibrant truthful news environment.
The three-and-a-half-hour meeting centered on the letters sent earlier this year by U.S. Representatives Jerry McNerney and Anna Eshoo to private companies such as AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Dish, and Hulu, requesting information on their plans to address misinformation.
“We are concerned about the role AT&T plays in disseminating misinformation to millions of its U-verse, DirecTV, and AT&T TV subscribers, and we write to you today to request additional information about what actions AT&T is taking to address these issues,” the letter sent to AT&T reads.
Each letter specifically named right-wing media outlets “Newsmax, One America News Network (OANN), and Fox News” for spreading misinformation about COVID-19 and the election results.
Ranking Member of the Subcommittee, Bob Latta of Ohio, pointed out in his statement that the letters implied that those private companies should cease carrying certain news media services.
Without overtly calling for federal bureaucrats to become involved in censorship, Bell highlighted the benefits and drawbacks of a deregulated media:
Rollback of regulations has liberated the market but taken with it some of the safeguards and supports for more varied, localized media. Digital media and the lowering of barriers has helped elevate previously marginalized and ignored voices and it’s made our public discourse much more diverse. But an open market without regulation will always favor bad actors over good.
Bell hopes that government management of news will help create thriving local news environments. She cited studies showing that local news markets in the U.S. have drastically declined over the past fifteen years, while national news outlets have flourished.
It is worth noting that Bell speaks as a citizen of Great Britain, where journalism is overseen by a government-approved regulator called Ofcom (short for the Office of Communications). Ofcom is currently investigating Good Morning Britain after 41,000 complaints poured in over Piers Morgan’s comments about Meghan Markle’s interview with Oprah.
Despite being expressly protected in the First Amendment, free speech and the freedom of the press have been questioned in recent years as America has found itself deeply divided over such issues as COVID-19 and the 2020 presidential election — and more specifically, how those issues are being reported.
“[J]ournalists have bizarrely transformed from their traditional role as leading free expression defenders into the most vocal censorship advocates, using their platforms to demand that tech monopolies ban and silence others,” writes award-winning journalist and former attorney Glenn Greenwald.
This change of attitude was recently seen on display in a thread of tweets from UCLA professor Sarah T. Roberts (pictured) denouncing Substack, an online platform that provides income to independent writers who send newsletters to their subscribers.
Controversial writers on Substack include Bari Weiss (who resigned from the New York Times last summer in a dispute over newsroom censorship), Andrew Sullivan (who resigned from New York Magazine days after Weiss left the Times), and Jesse Singal (controversial on account of his coverage of transgender transitions in children).
“Substack is a dangerous threat to traditional news media. But more importantly? It is a threat to journalism,” Roberts wrote on February 28.
She contends that people who have not been trained in journalism lack the qualifications and the editorial oversight required for true journalism.
Roberts finally appealed to her readers:
The College Fix reached out to the director of research at the National Association of Scholars, David Randall, for comment on Bell’s ideas. He responded that “the point of free speech is that the people have the right to determine what is true, and that the government should not be delegated such power.” In addition, he said, “it is astonishing that a Professor of Journalism would not recognize this basic point.”
Representative Latta voiced his concern during the hearing that rather than seeking bipartisan solutions to misinformation, the intent of the hearing was actually to “fan the flames of silencing certain viewpoints in America.” He went on to advocate for more free speech, rather than restraints on it:
With this goal at hand we are embarking upon a dangerous path of using this committee to attack a foundation of fact and further diminish trust in journalism. The anecdote to bad speech is more speech. Rather than suppressing speech and viewpoints that we don’t agree with, we should be encouraging more speech and conversations between one another. Sadly, it appears we’re doubling down on encouraging the cancel culture of the left instead of identifying bipartisan solutions to encourage and support factual local and national news.
According to Subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle, another hearing will be held on March 25 with the CEOs of Facebook, Google, and Twitter to continue the conversation.
You may also wish to read: In Big Tech World: the journalist as censor, hit man, and snitch. Glenn Greenwald looks at a disturbing trend in media toward misrepresentation as well as censorship.