Former CNN host Soledad O’Brien told a congressional hearing Wednesday that Congress needed to “shed light on how irresponsible media contributes to disinformation in ways that have consequences for democracy.”
O’Brien was among the witnesses at a hearing of the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology of the Committee on Energy and Commerce titled “Fanning the Flames: Disinformation and Extremism in the Media.”
House Democrats used the hearing to blame conservative media for the Capitol riot, and for the extent of the coronavirus pandemic. One witness, who also spoke at the Democratic National Convention, blamed former President Donald Trump for her father’s death from COVID-19.
Ranking Member Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) denounced the hearing, noting that the Constitution’s answer to bad speech had always been “more speech.” She added that the campaign against “disinformation” had become a cover for attempts to silence opposition: “People are afraid of a woke and authoritarian system that is getting them fired, canceled, and shamed.” She also noted that House Democrats were pressuring cable networks to drop conservatives news channels.
O’Brien, who once worked for Al Jazeera — a network funded by the government of Qatar, and often considered a conduit for propaganda against the West and other Arab regimes — began her prepared testimony by attacking former CNN colleague Lou Dobbs over an incorrect story that aired in 2005 about illegal aliens and leprosy.
(While at CNN, O’Brien notably attacked this author with “disinformation” about Critical Race Theory, then staged a new, separate segment repeating false information.)
O’Brien cited her position as a board member of the Rand Corporation, whose “Truth Decay” project had identified several factors in the declining credibility of the media. These included:
- “Increasing disagreement about facts
- “A blurring of the line between opinion and fact
- “The rising influence and quantity of opinion over facts.
- “Declining trust in formerly respected sources of facts, like conventional media which has suffered from the rise of social media.”
She blamed the disappearance of local news, which could not compete with free content on social media. She also said that cable news had become more focused on entertainment, and conflict, than in reporting basic facts and information. And she said the lack of racial, geographic, and economic diversity in newsrooms made the media much less credible.
She acknowledged that both CNN and MSNBC had reported hyperbolic and false stories about Trump and Russia.
“So what to do about all this?” she asked.
Let me be clear. Congress can’t, and shouldn’t, regulate journalism in defiance of the First Amendment. It’s enough that Congress underfunds and politicizes public media even as it strives to bring basic news to scores of communities big and small. What Congress can do is shed light on how irresponsible media contributes to disinformation in ways that have consequences for democracy. You can speak up, like I am today, and encourage education that helps the public discern between fact and fiction, opinion and reporting. The public can also speak up and look to educate themselves on disinformation.
O’Brien said specifically that media outlets should not “book liars or advance lies,” and should stop “posing every story as having two sides,” when some stories had many sides, while other stories only had one legitimate side. She also said that newsrooms should recruit more diverse newsrooms, and that the media should invest in “efforts to challenge media who disseminate misinformation.” (She cited Media Matters for America, a left-wing organization that organizes efforts to boycott conservative media, as a positive example.)
Constitutional scholar Jonathan Turley, who also appeared as a witness, criticized O’Brien’s approach, saying it was not fair to support free speech and a free press, but only “as long as you’re not a liar.”
“Who’s the arbiter of that?” he added.
“I do not believe that lies deserve equal time,” O’Brien later said.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News and the host of Breitbart News Sunday on Sirius XM Patriot on Sunday evenings from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET (4 p.m. to 7 p.m. PT). He is the author of the recent e-book, Neither Free nor Fair: The 2020 U.S. Presidential Election. His recent book, RED NOVEMBER, tells the story of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary from a conservative perspective. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.