By Guy Page
A Congressional subcommittee of which Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) sits on a House subcommittee that is investigating conservative media for allegedly contributing to deadly misinformation about the pandemic and the January 6 riot at the Capitol Building.
At a Feb. 24 public hearing, Welch said market forces created our polarized national media and suggested government funding as an alternative.
What is his committee doing? Sunday evening, Vermont Daily sent an email and left a phone message for Lincoln Peek, communications director for Rep. Welch, asking Vermont’s lone congressman questions about the aggressive investigation his committee has launched against online/cable carriers of Fox, OANN, and Newsmax. As of Wednesday morning, no response has been received.
The House Communications and Technology Subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee held a public hearing last Wednesday, February 24 entitled “Fanning the Flames: Disinformation and Extremism in the Media.” E&C Chair Frank Pallone (D-New Jersey) opened with an ‘I support the First Amendment, but……” disclaimer statement:
“Let me start by saying we’re all staunch defenders of the First Amendment and its mandate that “Congress make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” The First Amendment prohibits us from passing laws that inappropriately limit speech – even when it is controversial or overly partisan. But that does not mean that we should ignore the spread of misinformation that causes public harm.”
But Pallone clearly relishes his committee’s role as Public Inquisitor:
“We must ask uncomfortable questions. Like whether these media outlets, for example, have an incentive to air extreme conspiratorial programming or content. And, how journalists can help each other find ways to cover controversial topics in a way that doesn’t undermine our democratic structure and health. There are no easy answers, but we must try to find them.”
The committee and sub-committee on which Rep. Welch sits doesn’t just vaguely blame conservative media for pandemic deaths and the Capitol riot. It’s pointing fingers and demanding answers in a “what did you know and when did you know it” manner worthy of the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthyite Red Scare of the 1950’s. Two Commerce & Technology members – California Democrats Gerry McNerney and Anna Eshoo – Feb. 22 sent an intimidating inquiry letter to carriers ATT, Verizon, Roku, Amazon, Apple, Comcast, Charter and others demanding specific, sensitive information about their relationship with conservative news networks Fox News, OANN, and Newsmax.
The lawmakers demand questions like: “How many subscribers tuned in?” “What steps did you take?” “Are you planning on carrying Fox News now and beyond your annual contract renewal date?” In the legal world, this letter resembles the introductory “stiffly worded letter” from the plaintiff’s lawyer. The recipient is given to understand that without compliance, more, much more, will follow – and it won’t be good.
What does Welch himself think? Rep. Welch does not hold a leadership position on either the committee or the sub-committee. So where in this upside-down world in which Congress is demanding answers from the press does Welch fit in? Is he joining the Pallone, McNerney, Eshoo and the mob? Is he stridently upholding the rights of a free and independent press?
So far, it appears, he is doing neither. But he is talking openly about moving Vermont media away from the market model to the taxpayer-supported model. At the 3:02:46 mark during the Feb. 24 hearing, he interrogates conservative law professor Jonathan Turley:
“First of all, I’m totally for the First Amendment,” Welch begins. “I just want to be clear that we can’t really regulate it. But Professor Turley, you said that you hope the market would correct some of these extreme problems. I believe the market created these extreme problems. If you’re a Newsmax or an MSNBC…..you’ve developed a market plan, you’ve disseminated a point of view that appeals to the demographic, and you’ve then you get advertisers to support it.”
Welch added that he sees Vermont local news – now struggling to survive under the market model – as a ‘public good’ that may require some taxpayer support. In fact, this plan is already underway. In a December press conference, Welch reported that the second round of Paycheck Protection funding had included the traditional press not covered under the first round last year.
It’s worth noting that not all of the hearing’s criticism of media-inspired violence came from Democrats. Fellow committee member Steve Scalise (R-LA) recalled how the Bernie Sanders devotee who shot him and others at a baseball practice was an MSNBC watcher. Politically-inspired violence didn’t begin on January 6, he said.
Vermont Daily emailed to Peek the following questions, with a promise to publish the response:
Having read the letter by Rep. Eshoo and McNerney, I would like to ask the Congressman: does he support the requests made by his fellow subcommittee members?
If the answer is no, please explain his disagreement. If the answer is yes, please answer these questions:
1. Why should carriers divulge their content guidelines to Congress, as requested by Reps. Eshoo and McNerney?
2. Why does Congress need to know the specific number of subscribers watching Fox, OAN and other channels during the events of January 6?
3. Why should these channels be required to defend their news coverage to Congress? Does Congress believe the press is accountable to Congress for its coverage?
4. Why should carriers tell Congress their plans to renew the contracts of these news channels after their current contracts expire?
5. Does it concern you that the plain reading of these questions resemble government interference in the freedom of the press?
Thank you for your prompt attention to these questions. I welcome any other comments you wish to make.
Vermont Daily and many other Vermont media are examples of the market-based, independent, non-taxpayer supported press. Vermont Daily, anyway, believes it should stay that way. There can be no government shekels without government shackles. We get by without taxpayer support so that without fear or favor we can ask our elected public servants ‘uncomfortable’ questions and publish the most relevant answer. This system has worked well in the United States since the 18th century. Let’s hope Congress makes sure it stays that way.
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