Group challenges Fox Philly’s license renewal over parent network’s false election claims

By Michael P. Hill Article may include affiliate links

A group has filed paperwork with the FCC urging it not to renew the license for Fox-owned WTXF in Philadelphia, claiming that its parent company’s reporting of false election fraud in the 2020 election goes against its “basic statutory duty to conduct its operations in the public interest.”

WTXF, like all over-the-air broadcast stations in the country, has a license from the FCC that let it send its signal over the public airwaves. These licenses, which can be highly valuable, require regular renewals and, as a public entity, the FCC hears feedback from the public each time the license comes up.

As part of holding an FCC license, TV stations are required to demonstrate that they serve the region two which they are licensed. They can demonstrate this through local news and public affairs programming, public service efforts and more.

It is not clear why WTXF in particular was targeted, though it could simply be a matter of timing of when Fox-owned stations’ licenses are due for renewal.

Most of the starkest false claims were made on Fox’s conservative cable channel, though some of the same content is aired on Fox-affiliated stations. The FCC does not have jurisdiction over cable channels, which also do not require FCC licenses.

In many cases, a license renewal is a relatively rubber-stamped process and many go with little to no public objection.

In this instance, however, an organization called MAD, short for Media and Democracy Project, filed petition paperwork July 3, 2023, reading, in part, that the “license renewal application for a Fox station offers an opportunity for petitioners, in the public interest, to seek to hold Fox accountable.”

In the petition, which MAD announced in a coordinating press release, the organization alleges “that senior management of Fox Corporation (Fox) manipulated its audience by knowingly broadcasting false news about the 2020 election. Its intentional and chronic news distortion further divided the country, sowing discord that was a contributing factor to the attack on our nation’s Capitol on January 6, 2021.”

The petition cites the recent Dominion Voting Systems settlement that Fox agreed to as part of an eleventh-hour deal to stop the defamation case from reaching public trial. As part of that agreement, Fox agreed to pay Dominion $787 million, though it likely won’t end up paying that much.

Dominion had been seeking $1.6 billion from Fox. Fox had maintained that it did not defame the company because it was just reporting claims made by others. However, at least in part due to legal technicalities and evidence making it into the public as part of discovery, it appeared Fox would be likely to lose the trial, leading to its settlement.

“MAD believes it has not done so, relying on the court decision in Dominion v. Fox, which found that Fox’s broadcasts leading up to January 6 repeatedly were false and held that Fox had defamed the voting machine company,” the press release reads.

“The intentional distortion of news, authorized at the highest levels of Fox’s corporate structure, and fabricated by management and on-air personalities, represents a severe breach of the FCC’s policy on licensee character qualifications. MAD claims that Fox’s activities shock the conscience,” it adds.

MAD notes that, at least in its view, the settlement, which does require Fox to apologize for it broadcasting the false claims or issue any type of correction of retraction on air, amounts to an admission of guilt, though that is not directly supported by legal precedence.

“MAD’s petition is supported by a declaration from former Fox Broadcasting executive Preston Padden. Padden describes from firsthand experience Rupert Murdoch’s ultimate decision-making authority over every aspect of Fox operations. He also includes personal email exchanges with Rupert Murdoch. Some or all of those email exchanges were produced by Fox into the public record of the Dominion litigation without Mr. Padden’s knowledge or consent,” reads the announcement.