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Former FCC official joins fight against WTXF license renewal

Ex-FCC Commissioner Ervin Duggan and publisher Bill Kristol ask agency to block Philadelphia Fox station's license.

Ex-FCC Commissioner Ervin Duggan and publisher Bill Kristol ask agency to block Philadelphia Fox station's license.

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 former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) official and the publisher of a center-right political affairs website have added to calls for the government’s broadcast regulator to block the license renewal of a Fox station in Philadelphia.

On Monday, former Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol (now at The Bulwark) and ex-FCC commissioner Ervin Duggan sent a letter to the FCC joining the Media and Democracy Project’s effort in opposing the license renewal of WTXF (Channel 29), which is owned by the Fox network.

The trio say a recent settlement by the network’s parent company Fox Corporation proves that Fox and its key executives cannot pass the “character” requirement that is part of an overall test to determine the fitness of a broadcast station license holders.

The settlement, reached in April, was part of a defamation case brought by Dominion Voting Systems over certain election-related conspiracies involving their machines and which were aired by some Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network hosts and guests.

Related: Group asks FCC to deny Fox Philadelphia’s license renewal

Fox operates its local television station division separate from its cable networks (it owns 14 Fox stations in the largest 15 television markets as defined by Nielsen). But those objecting to WTXF’s license renewal say the conduct of executives in charge of the company is germane to the FCC’s oversight when it comes to whether those leaders are fit to serve as broadcast license holders.

Overall, the letter filed with the FCC on Monday restates many of the claims and objections made in the Media and Democracy Project’s original petition, which asks the FCC to look at the conduct of Fox Corporation and executives with respect to the Dominion case and subsequent settlement in weighing whether Fox should continue to hold a license for WTXF.

While it is not unheard of for individuals or groups to object to a station license’s renewal, such efforts rarely gain the type of momentum as this one. Even when they do, the FCC rarely denies a license holder’s request for renewal, and there is no guarantee they will do so here.

In fact, the letter filed by Kristol and Duggan notes at least one other similar attempt: In 2012, a group calling itself the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) petitioned the FCC to block Fox’s request to renew the license of its Washington, D.C. station, WTTG (Channel 5). The request came as Fox founder, chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch was scrutinized by British lawmakers over a phone-hacking scandal that embroiled his tabloid newspaper, News of the World.

The CREW petition was denied by the FCC, with the agency finding that there was no legal process proving Murdoch responsible for any legal misconduct. Kristol and Duggan argue that the Dominion settlement changes things, because the agreement to end the case could be seen ad a de facto admission of liability.

Fox Corporation has not commented publicly on the FCC petition concerning WTXF. In April, the company said its settled the Dominion case because going to trial could prove distracting to its business. The company was not required to admit to any legal wrongdoing, and was not forced to retract any of its on-air segments.

Kristol and Duggan admit that the Dominion case related to comments that aired on cable television, and were not “directly connected to [WTXF] itself, but rather related to [WTXF]’s corporate affiliates, its controlling parent FOX, and the Murdochs.” But they say certain elements of Fox’s behavior during the Dominion case and subsequent settlement should be enough to trigger FCC scrutiny in WTXF’s license renewal process.

Specifically, Kristol and Duggan claim that Fox “made representations to the court as to possible withholding of materials in discovery,” which refers to records that Fox is alleged to have not disclosed to lawyers for Dominion during the deposition portion of the case. (Fox did make thousands of records available to Dominion — nearly all were made public — many of which painted the broadcaster in a negative light.)

“Under the Character Policy, the truthfulness and reliability of its licensees is a special concern of the FCC, and behavior that may indicate a lack of candor in either a civil or criminal law context is to be considered by the FCC in its licensing decisions,” the duo argue.

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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).