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Fox says group is distorting facts in battle for Philly TV license

The FCC is weighing public comments after a new public interest group challenged Fox's application to renew the license of WTXF in Philadelphia.

The FCC is weighing public comments after a new public interest group challenged Fox's application to renew the license of WTXF in Philadelphia.

A subsidiary of Fox Corporation says a startup public interest group has made materially-inaccurate claims about its Philadelphia television station as a federal agency weighs public comment over a proposed renewal of the station’s license.

Earlier this week, Fox Television Stations sent a letter to officials at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) complaining that the group, the Media and Democracy (MAD) Project, made numerous inaccurate statements as it challenges Fox’s application to renew the license of WTXF (Channel 29).

The letter was submitted after MAD and several former Fox and FCC executives filed informal objections to the license renewal application and urged the agency to accept public comment on the matter. The FCC approved the latter request in August.

MAD takes the position that the FCC should deny the license renewal application because Fox agreed to settle a defamation case brought by a manufacturer of voting machines that was connected to election-related conspiracy theories spread on some Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network programs.

MAD says evidence uncovered during the defamation case proved Fox and its executives knew the election-related conspiracy theories were unfounded, but allowed them to propagate on the news channels anyway.

While Fox operates its local broadcast stations and cable channels as separate businesses under the same corporate ownership, MAD contends that the settlement points to a deficient character by Fox and its most-senior executives: Founder and largest shareholder Rupert Murdoch, and Fox Chairman and CEO Lachlan Murdoch.

Holding a broadcast license in the United States is a privilege, not a right, and the FCC considers a number of factors when determining whether someone should be awarded such a license. One element under consideration is their character — and MAD says the Murdochs individually and Fox as a company has deficiencies to that effect, citing the legal settlement.

On Wednesday, two attorneys representing Fox Television Stations reaffirmed the company’s position that many of the claims made by MAD are moot, because they cannot be considered by the FCC when determining whether a person or company should be awarded a broadcast license.

“MAD wholly ignored the fact that an application to renew a broadcast television station’s license first and foremost concerns the record of service by the station,” the attorneys, John Cobb and Matthew DelNero, wrote in the letter.

The studios of Fox station WTXF appears in an undated image. (Photo via Google Street View)
The studios of Fox station WTXF appear in an undated image. (Photo via Google Street View)

To that effect, Fox has pointed to WTXF’s local news output over the years, which focuses mainly on the Philadelphia region and which has never been shown to have repeated any of the election-related misinformation spread on the Fox-owned cable news channels.

In a separate filing with the FCC this week, Cobb and DelNero provided a letter from the Lenfest Institute, a WTXF civic engagement partner who worked with the station on a campaign called “Every Voice, Every Vote” during the midterm election last year.

The letter, written by Shawn Mooring, praised WTXF for “amplifying the diverse perspectives and stories of Philadelphia voters” and “developing creative strategies to encourage voting in Philadelphia,” among other objectives.

“Every Voice, Every Vote would not be as successful without FOX 29,” Moorign said, referring to WTXF by its on-air branding. “The Lenfest Institute is now in the planning stages of a post-election phase of Every Voice, Every Vote, for which FOX 29 will provide City Council and City Hall reporting. We are very much looking forward to FOX 29 continuing to amplify issues that matter most to all Philadelphia’s communities and elevating the voices of the city’s diverse electorate.”

Cobb and DelNero also said they wanted to “correct the record” on other purportedly false statements made by MAD, including a claim that WTXF failed to maintain political records in its public inspection file as required by FCC rules.

“MAD bases its analysis of timeliness on a surprising mischaracterization of the [public inspection file] rules,” the attorneys said. “Specifically, MAD would have readers…believe that the commission assesses timeliness of uploads based in all cases upon the date listed in the contract with an advertiser. That date, however, generally ties to the date of the initial request for rates or an inquiry of availability of time, and it often does not correlate to the date there was a final order.”

Cobb and DelNero said advertisement orders “frequently undergo numerous revisions before the initial contact and final order,” and that MAD’s reliance on certain dates to claim WTXF’s public inspection file wasn’t well-maintained is erroneous.

“Even the specific examples of allegedly late contracts cited by MAD fail to support its broad assertion of a ‘false certification’ of compliance,” Cobb and DelNero said. It pointed to a claim made by MAD that political files related to advertisements bought in connection with Josh Shapiro’s gubernatorial campaign in Pennsylvania were incomplete, with the attorneys asserting that “all 83 contracts, including revisions, were timely filed….”

While two contracts were furnished to the public inspection file late, Cobb and DelNero assured the FCC that it wasn’t because Fox or WTXF were improperly withholding them. Instead, the attorneys said the contracts were late to make it into the public inspection file because of technical issues with an FCC database that stations use to upload the material to an online version of their public inspection file.

“Out of hundreds of political advertisements that aired during the 2020 and 2022 political season, a de minimis number of delays resulting from technical challenges in no way demonstrates any material misrepresentation before the commission,” Cobb and DelNero said.

Preston Padden, a former senior-level Fox executive who is now leading an effort to challenge the license of Philadelphia station WTXF. (Still image from video by U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce)
Preston Padden, a former senior-level Fox executive who is now leading an effort to challenge the license of Philadelphia station WTXF. (Still image from video by U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce)

Fox maintains that MAD hasn’t pointed to any specific issue with WTXF that would cause the FCC to deny its license request. But MAD has been somewhat successful in impressing upon the public that the line between its television station and cable news businesses is blurry at best.

Numerous members of the public have filed public comments in the FCC docket on the matter, with the majority aligning themselves with MAD’s view that the WTXF license renewal application should be rejected because of programming on Fox News and Fox Business Network.

“The FCC should deny renewal of Fox 29’s broadcasting license, due to their history of knowingly disseminating lies about the 2020 election,” Kristine Piccola, a customer support specialist who works in the Philadelphia area, wrote in a comment on Friday. (No one, including MAD, has proven that WTXF aired any clips from Fox News or Fox Business that contained election-related misinformation.)

“This goes further than misinformation,” Piccola continued. “They are culpable in the incitement of violence that resulted in terror and deaths on January 6.”

Michael Caine, the pastor of Old First Reformed Church in Philadelphia, also seemed to confuse the local broadcast station with Fox News.

“It is basic to the role of news media in our democracy that it aims for truth and fact,” Rev. Caine wrote in a comment. “Fox showed disregard for both; instead feeding its audience what they wanted to hear, for the network’s profits. That’s not journalism; if the Philly affiliate didn’t have the backbone to refuse to broadcast lies, of course they should be denied their right to broadcast.”

There were few members of the public supportive of WTXF and Fox, though their comments also seemed to confuse the local broadcast business with the cable networks.

“Many of the legacy news programs consistently offer left leaning, biased opinions that are nor confirmed, factual news,” Daniel Jones, an executive with a major healthcare company in Philadelphia, wrote in a comment to the FCC. “Elimination of any of the few available right leaning broadcasts will limit the public’s ability to hear all sides of a discussion and form their own opinions.  Please do not impose any restrictions on their operations.”

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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).