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Group asks FCC to deny Fox station’s license renewal

The filing questions whether Fox can satisfy a character requirement to hold a broadcast license for its Philadelphia station, WTXF.

The filing questions whether Fox can satisfy a character requirement to hold a broadcast license for its Philadelphia station, WTXF.

The Fox Broadcasting logo appears on a building in Phoenix, Arizona in an undated image posted to Flickr and licensed through Creative Commons
(Photo by Tony Webster via Flickr Creative Commons, Graphic by The Desk)

A public interest group is calling on federal regulators to deny a license request by Fox Corporation for its local television station in Philadelphia.

On Thursday, the Media and Democracy Project (MAD) said it filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) asking it to reject the license renewal of WTXF (Channel 29).

WTXF is one of more than two dozen local television stations that the Fox owns and operates. But nothing aired on WTXF is at the center of MAD’s petition to deny; instead, the group is challenging the license because Fox settled a defamation case brought by Dominion Voting Systems over election-related misinformation that was exacerbated by some talk show hosts and guests on the Fox News Channel.

Except for “Fox News Sunday,” a political affairs program that is generally not controversial, no Fox News programming airs on local Fox stations, including WTXF. And while Fox News does provide some local news content to Fox-owned and Fox-affiliated local stations, the local station and affiliate groups are separate business units from Fox News Media, which operates Fox News and Fox Business Network.

Still, MAD said WTXF airing “Fox News Sunday” is enough to show a correlation between the local station and the cable news channel because the title of the program contains the words “Fox News.” The petition also noted that the channel’s former host, Chris Wallace, left the program shortly after the 2020 presidential election because he found his future at Fox “unsustainable.” (Wallace now works for Warner Bros Discovery’s streaming service, Max; excerpts from his online show air weekly on Fox News competitor CNN.)

Fox owns nearly 30 local television stations across the country, many of them carrying Fox network programming. (Courtesy image)
Fox owns nearly 30 local television stations across the country, many of them carrying Fox network programming. (Courtesy image)

Throughout much of the petition, MAD relies on an FCC requirement that a current or future broadcast licensee demonstrate various qualities, including the fitness of their character, to prove they are qualified to operate a licensed radio or television station.

“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,” a spokesperson for MAD wrote in a press release. “MAD claims that FOX’s activities shock the conscience.”

The MAD spokesperson continued: “Owning a broadcast station is more than a business — it is a public trust. Never before has the [FCC] been confronted with so much evidence attached to a petition that clearly shows that an FCC broadcast licensee undermined that trust.”

The effort is being led by Preston Padden, a media executive who worked at Fox in the early to mid-1990s. Padden left Fox in October 1996 — the same month that the Fox News Channel launched — to work with Murdoch on developing American Sky Broadcasting (ASkyB), a satellite television company that ultimately never launched. He left ASkyB and Murdoch in 1997 to work for ABC.

Padden apparently kept in touch with his former boss until just recently, with Padden drawing on emails between himself and Murdoch that showed the Fox owner had reservations about election-related conspiracy theories being aired on Fox News.

Some of those emails were disclosed by Fox during the discovery and deposition phases of the Dominion lawsuit, which Padden said was done without his knowledge. Still, he relies on them in his petition as proof that Murdoch, despite his personal feelings, allowed Fox hosts and guests to promote election-related conspiracies, which Padden said contributed to the siege by thousands of Trump loyalists on the U.S. Capitol in early 2021.

“Mr. Murdoch knew that Trump had lost the election, nonetheless, Fox continued to promote news stories and guests who claimed, without any basis, that the election was rigged,” Padden wrote. “In my opinion, these actions on the part of Mr. Murdoch, his son [Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch] and top Fox management significantly contributed to the upheaval that occurred at the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, 2021.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for Fox called the petition “frivolous” and “completely without merit,” suggesting it “asks the FCC to upend the First Amendment and longstanding FCC precedent.”

That precedent has generally seen the FCC rubber-stamp license renewals held by major broadcasters like Fox. Petitions to deny are rare, and when they do happen, the FCC usually denies them.

MAD likely faces an uphill battle, because the organization didn’t draw a direct connection between WTXF and any of the programming aired on Fox News that was at the heart of the Dominion case, except to note that the broadcast station and the cable channel share the same corporate ownership.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article stated Padden left the Fox Corporation in January 1996, but noted that his deposition submitted to the FCC claims he departed in 1997. The January 1996 date came from an online resume posted by Padden; when asked to explain the discrepancy in dates, Padden produced a New York Times article about his arrival at ABC. According to the bookThe Fourth Network: How Fox Broke the Rules and Reinvented Television,” Padden left Fox in October 1996 to run ASkyB, then left the satellite startup to join ABC in 1997.

Additionally, an earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to WTXF’s virtual channel position as “Channel 39.” The station transmits on virtual channel 29.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is the publisher of The Desk and reports on the business and policy matters involving the broadcast television, streaming video and radio industries. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, Disney-ABC, Tribune Broadcasting and McNaughton Newspapers. Matthew is based in Northern California, has won numerous awards in the field of journalism, and is a member of IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors).