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NAB takes Fox’s side in fight over WTXF broadcast license

Group says allowing a media watchdog to block the license renewal process would set a dangerous precedent for other broadcast outlets.

Group says allowing a media watchdog to block the license renewal process would set a dangerous precedent for other broadcast outlets.

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)

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) has waded into an ongoing battle at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) concerning the broadcast license of a Fox-owned television station in Philadelphia.

Last week, officials at the NAB urged commissioners at the FCC to reject efforts by an upstart media watchdog organization that seeks to block the license renewal of WTXF (Channel 29) amid concerns over the character of Fox executives Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch.

The petition, filed earlier this year, urges the FCC to deny Fox’s request to renew WTXF’s license after the company spent $787 million to settle a defamation lawsuit brought over election-related misinformation aired on two Fox-owned cable news channels.

While Fox operates its cable news channels Fox News and Fox Business Network separately from its broadcast TV station group, the Media and Democracy (MAD) Project says the lawsuit points to deficiencies in the characters of Fox Corporation and the Murdochs.

The FCC requires the owners of broadcast TV stations like WTXF to obtain government-issued licenses in order to operate the stations on publicly-owned airwaves. Part of the licensing requirement involves evaluating the fitness of an owner’s character. The FCC may decide not to award licenses, or renew ones already issued, to owners who are found to be of unfit character.

The issue has turned what should be a routine matter at the FCC — the agency typically rubber-stamps license renewal applications without much scrutiny — into one where former television executives, government officials and public interest groups have been asked to take sides.

The NAB is the largest lobbying group that represents the views of broadcasters like Fox. Last week, the group said the FCC should reject calls to deny the renewal of WTXF’s broadcast license because MAD and its supporters are perverting the renewal process to raise issues on unrelated matters.

“Among other defects, these filings virtually ignore the proper focus for broadcast license renewals, as established in the Communications Act of 1934, and try to improperly expand the scope of the FCC’s broadcast news distortion policy, contrary to the FCC’s authority and the First Amendment,” the NAB wrote in a comment filed with the FCC last week.

The NAB said it typically does not get involved with broadcast license renewals, but the efforts by MAD and its supporters have raised alarm bells for all broadcasters because they seek to alter the course of an ordinary license renewal process by bringing an otherwise-uninvolved cable news channel into the mix.

“The Petition identifies no specific content WTXF aired that allegedly failed to serve the local community, let alone would justify failing to grant the application and designating it for hearing,” the NAB wrote.

To the contrary, WTXF and Fox have spent the last few weeks soliciting letters of support from various organizations that say the Philadelphia TV station has been a good partner in promoting numerous local initiatives.

But MAD — which is backed by former Fox executive Preston Padden and former FCC commissioner Ervin Duggan, among others — says the issue involving the Fox cable channels is just one of several matters that the FCC should consider when weighing whether to approve the license renewal application. The organization also calls into question whether WTXF filed timely records related to political advertisements in its public inspection file, which is maintained through a forward-facing FCC database.

Even that isn’t relevant, says NAB, which points to MAD’s apparent failure thus far to provide any evidence that WTXF doesn’t serve its local community as it is required to do under its license obligations.

“Declining to dismiss this deficient petition would set a factually and legally erroneous precedent likely to harm other broadcasters seeking to renew their licenses in the future,” the NAB said.

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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).