On July 3, 2023, members of the Media and Democracy Project, a media watchdog group, petitioned the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to deny the renewal of the license for Philadelphia’s Fox TV station, WTFX. The filing charged that WTFX had repeatedly promoted a false narrative about the 2020 Presidential election being “stolen” from Donald Trump by the Democrats, “sowing discord in the country” in the process, and ultimately contributing “to harmful and dangerous acts on January 6, 2021.” The filing further alleged that the management of the station’s owner, the Fox Corporation, deliberately and knowingly “manipulated its audience” by pushing Trump’s baseless stolen-election narrative.
Although stripping an established TV station of its broadcast license may seem like an extreme measure, the Fox Corporation’s record of malfeasance and its repeated betrayal of the public trust justifies the action in this case. Indeed, an argument can be made that the FCC should take away every single one of the corporation’s broadcast licenses.
Consider the evidence. The Fox Corporation also owns the infamous and widely watched cable channel, Fox News. Transcripts of Fox News coverage during the two weeks after the 2020 election show Fox reporters and opinion-makers made nearly 600 statements casting doubt on the election outcome or promoting conspiracy theories about the balloting process. Even today Fox News continues to sow doubt about the election among its viewing audience and consistently downplays the subsequent coup attempt of January 6. More recently, the network has taken to attacking special prosecutor Jack Smith for bringing criminal charges against Trump for illegally retaining federal documents and for Trump’s role in inciting the January 6 attack on the US Capitol.
The public got a rare glimpse inside Fox News during the discovery process of a defamation lawsuit brought by Dominion Voting Systems, a manufacturer of voting machines that claimed Fox News hosts and their guests damaged Dominion’s reputation. Emails and text messages from Fox Corporation management, including messages between company board chair Rupert Murdoch and former top executive Preston Padden, showed they knew the claims of election fraud they were broadcasting were “total BS.” The emails revealed that the Fox News fact-checking department, “the brain room,” believed that allegations made on the network about Dominion voting machines being rigged were “100% false” and concluded that there was “no evidence of widespread fraud.” On the day before the Dominion trial was slated to begin, the news outlet agreed to a settlement of more than three-quarter-of-a-billion dollars (the largest-known defamation settlement in American history), quite likely because Fox realized they were going to lose. Fox News is still facing a $2.7 billion lawsuit from another voting machine company, Smartmatic, which claims it was also smeared by the company’s coverage.
Fox Corporation also faces a lawsuit brought by Ray Epps, a former Marine and participant in the January 6th insurrection, whom Fox claimed was an undercover turncoat to the Trump cause. The Dominion suit “demonstrates a pattern,” Epps’s attorney said, that Fox has “engaged in lies about the 2020 election, seeking to placate their viewers.” In yet another lawsuit, Abby Grossberg, a former Fox News producer who claims she was “bullied, intimidated and coerced” into giving a dishonest deposition in the Dominion case, decried her former employer as “a big corporate machine that destroys people.”
Of course, the media conglomerate’s pattern of misconduct long predates the rise of Donald Trump and the “Big Lie” of the allegedly stolen 2020 election. In 2012, Fox-affiliated journalists in Britain intercepted private voicemail messages. The ensuing scandal, dubbed “Hackergate,” led to a judicial public inquiry—the Leveson Inquiry, named for its chair, Lord Justice Brian Leveson—that chastised news outlets affiliated with Fox Corporation for “a failure of systems of management and compliance.”
Nevertheless, the parade of unethical behavior continued unabated. In 2017, the corporation paid $90 million to resolve sexual harassment claims against former Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly and longtime Fox News chief Roger Ailes. The aforementioned whistleblower, Abby Grossberg, described repeated instances of male employees at Fox News bombarding women on staff with sexist and misogynist insults.
Which brings us back to the petition to deny the license of Philadelphia’s Fox TV station WTFX.
Broadcast television license holders are obliged to serve the public “interest, convenience, and necessity,” and the FCC makes clear a number of disqualifying criteria against incumbent licensees. These include “an adverse finding…against it or its owners by a court…in a civil or criminal proceeding.” Moreover, broadcast license holders can lose their license for promoting false information if they knew it was false, if broadcasting the false information “directly cause[d] substantial public harm,” and “it was foreseeable that [such promotion] would cause such harm.” The Media and Democracy Project filing bluntly charges that “Fox harmed the public by willfully distorting election news.”
If the FCC grants the Media and Democracy Project petition, it will need to convene an evidentiary hearing to determine if the facts warrant nonrenewal of Fox’s WTFX license and to assess whether or not Fox “lacks the character qualifications required of licensees,” as the petition asserts. Although we have no way of knowing the outcome of such a hearing, it would at least force Fox to account for its long history of misconduct.
To be sure, other American broadcasters have been guilty of airing politically-motivated falsehoods as fact. A classic example is the abysmal performance of the country’s TV news operations in the lead-up to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. During this period, CNN, NBC, and other TV networks uncritically boosted now-discredited claims about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction and State Department lies about connections between Al Qaeda and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
But Fox Corporation stands in an ignoble class all its own, and the network’s vile propaganda and egregious behavior are rightly disparaged by journalists and critics from across the political spectrum. Indeed, former Fox executive Preston Padden, who helped build the network to its current prominence, now believes that “Rupert Murdoch and his son and apparent corporate heir Lachlan Murdoch have proven unfit owners” and should no longer be allowed to operate broadcast TV stations in this country.
The FCC would do well to heed the challenge offered by the WTXF petition to deny.
Steve Macek is professor of communication and media studies at North Central College and a co-coordinator of Project Censored’s Campus Affiliates Program.
Mitchell Szczepanczyk is a software engineer and a longtime organizer and writer with the media activist group Chicago Media Action.