A Fox test case looms for US media regulators

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Critics of Fox Corporation have long railed at the editorial standards of its popular US broadcasting operations. Now, with owner Rupert Murdoch handing over the reins of his media empire this week at age 92, some are calling for a regulatory hearing to decide whether one Fox affiliate station should be taken off the air.

With the licence of Philadelphia’s Fox-29 expiring over the summer, an advocacy group has made a petition to the Federal Communications Commission to deny its renewal. The Media and Democracy Project argues that Fox has violated the FCC’s requirements by airing false information about the 2020 presidential election. 

“Owning a broadcast station is more than a business — it is a public trust. It is crucial to our democracy that broadcasting remain a trusted source of news,” the petition says. 

The petition comes as Fox faces multiple legal challenges — potentially costing billions of dollars — surrounding the broadcaster’s coverage of the 2020 US election. It also turns the spotlight on the role of the FCC and its approach to regulation.

The case is limited in scope. Fox-29 is just one of dozens of broadcast stations that Fox owns across the US. It is also separate from Fox News, Murdoch’s powerhouse cable television channel that is among the most popular in America. Crucially, Fox News runs on private infrastructure and is therefore exempt from the stipulations the government holds for broadcasters that use public spectrum. 

But the Philadelphia challenge is significant, nonetheless, because it raises questions about US media infrastructure and the role of the press in democratic society. 

The FCC has a rich history dating back almost a century, to the advent of radio and then television. It was established in 1934 and fifteen years later introduced a “fairness doctrine” stipulating that, in return for receiving broadcast licences, radio and TV stations must give airtime to issues of public interest and present opposing views. 

Civil rights activists latched on to the “fairness doctrine” in the 1960s, citing the FCC’s rules to push television stations to give airtime to African-American views. The movement culminated in WLBT, which was the biggest TV channel in Mississippi, becoming the first station to be stripped of its broadcast licence for failing to serve the FCC’s public interest requirements. 

But this was a rare case — the FCC has only revoked licences on a handful of occasions. And over time the FCC’s power has been diminished: former president Ronald Reagan moved to deregulate the industry in the 1980s, striking down the “fairness doctrine”. What remains of the FCC’s requirements for broadcasters is vague language around “character” of the company and its owners, which includes convictions of crime. 

While in the UK, the media regulator Ofcom enforces rules about issues such as accuracy and fairness across news broadcasters, in the US private broadcasters are given more free rein, with a perpetual tug of war between those who want more regulation and those who argue it would infringe freedom of speech and amount to censorship of the media. 

The FCC website states that while the regulator “often receives complaints concerning broadcast journalism, such as allegations that stations have aired inaccurate or one-sided news reports . . . the Commission generally will not intervene in these cases because it would be inconsistent with the First Amendment”.

But in August, the FCC took the rare step of opening the Fox-29 petition up to public comment — a move that petitioners had asked for and Fox had opposed. 

Former Fox employees have joined in the calls for the FCC to consider Fox-29’s licence. Bill Kristol, a former Fox News contributor who worked in Ronald Reagan’s White House, submitted a joint letter with former FCC Commissioner Ervin Duggan, urging the regulator to hold a hearing about the “problematic conduct” of Fox. Former president of Fox Broadcasting Jamie Kellner has also called for a hearing.

A Fox spokesperson said the petition against Fox-29 is “frivolous, completely without merit and asks the FCC to upend the First Amendment and longstanding FCC precedent”.

While experts are sceptical that the FCC would actually take action against Fox, they say there is value in at least raising the conversation publicly. Victor Pickard, a media policy professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said: “It is creating a very rare discussion about: what are the responsibilities of local broadcast licensees to local communities in democratic society writ large?”


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