Fox Corporation is not going to give up a broadcast license for its Philadelphia television station without a fight.
This week, an attorney representing the company filed a brief with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) urging the agency to approve its application to renew the license of WTXF (Channel 29) and reject any efforts to block it.
The request comes nearly one month after an upstart public interest group calling itself the Media and Democracy Project (MAD) filed an informal objection with the FCC claiming Fox would not be able to pass a key character test because of election-related mistruths that were broadcast on two of its cable networks.
The effort is being led by Preston Padden, a former Fox executive who worked at the network in the 1990s and later worked with founder Rupert Murdoch on a satellite television service that ultimately did not launch.
In his early filing, Padden claims that Fox corporation is not fit to hold a broadcast license because the company entered into a $787.5 million settlement with Dominion Voting Systems after it brought a defamation lawsuit over various comments made on programs aired by the Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network several years ago.
Padden said Fox executives knew certain comments that cast doubt on the accuracy of voting machines used during the 2020 presidential election contained material falsehoods, but allowed Fox News and Fox Business hosts and guests to promote those conspiracies on television nonetheless.
In April, officials at Fox Corporation said the settlement was intended to bring the lawsuit to an end and avoid prolonged litigation that would create unnecessary distractions for its business. But Padden and MAD argue that the settlement goes at the heart of Fox and Murdoch’s character, which is one of various elements the FCC scrutinizes in awarding or renewing a broadcast license.
On Wednesday, Fox Senior Vice President for Legal Affairs Joe Di Scipio filed a reply brief on behalf of the network, arguing that none of the content aired on Fox News or Fox Business had anything to do with the Philadelphia TV station or any of its broadcast outlets, which are operated separately from its cable news channels.
Di Scipio wrote that Fox has a First Amendment right to air programming on its cable news channels, which typically falls outside the scope of the FCC’s regulatory authority. While the FCC can enforce instances where local broadcasters air knowingly false information, neither Padden, MAD nor any of its supporters have demonstrated that WTXF did anything to that extent, he said. To the contrary, Di Scipio noted that WTXF produces around 60 hours of local news programming each week, with some of its shows among the highest-rated in the region.
Di Scipio and Fox accused Padden and MAD of being opportunistic by abusing the FCC’s process of scrutiny with respect to broadcast license applications and renewals to launch a smear campaign against the network.
“Given the degree to which MAD has disregarded applicable precedent and established legal principles, together with an ongoing press campaign it and the member who served as the petition’s declarant have built around the petition, it is clear that MAD seeks to conscript the [FCC] into a public relations campaign that has no place in a broadcast license renewal proceeding,” Di Scipio, who once served as an attorney for the FCC, wrote in his reply brief.
Padden is holding firm, issuing a statement on Thursday in which he urged the FCC to hold a hearing on the matter of WTXF’s license renewal.
“Never before in the entire recorded history of the [FCC] has the agency been confronted with a broadcast license renewal applicant who, just a few months ago, was found by a court of law to have repeatedly presented false news,” Padden said in a statement emailed to The Desk. (The statement appears to refer to comments made by a federal judge overseeing the Dominion defamation lawsuit, who was asked by Fox to dismiss the case before it could go to trial. The judge denied the request.)
“There is no obligation of a broadcast licensee more fundamental than the obligation to serve the public interest by truthfully informing viewers,” Padden continued. “If the character requirement of…the Communications Act and the [FCC]’s own character and news distortion policies are to have any meaning, this license renewal application must, at a minimum, be designated for a hearing.