Last July, we noted how media reform activists had petitioned the FCC to revoke Fox News’ local broadcast license in Philadelphia. More specifically, the group argued that Fox News’ rampant election fraud propaganda technically violated the “character clause” embedded in the Communications Act the FCC is supposed to use to determine whether an organization should hold a broadcast license.
To be clear, a single Fox broadcast affiliate losing its license to broadcast in Philly wouldn’t have much of an impact on Fox’s ongoing efforts to spew GOP propaganda nationwide.
But, if successful, it might be replicable in other markets. Even if not, it serves a useful function in terms of activism and gaining media exposure for the need for some flavor of regulatory reform (like restoring popular, bipartisan media consolidation limits stripped away by the Trump FCC, media antitrust reform, or having the FCC actually use its authority to ensure economic and racial diversity ownership in media).
I remain unconvinced that the current Rosenworcel FCC has the political backbone to follow through on such a request. But interestingly enough, the FCC last week took the relatively rare step of opening up the petition to broader public comment, something requested by the original petitioners (the all volunteer-run Media and Democracy Project) but unsurprisingly opposed by Fox lawyers:
On July 18, MAD urged the FCC to change the status of the license renewal proceeding to allow more public participation because the issues raised in the petition “go beyond Fox’s day-to-day operation of WTXF-TV” and “address the broader question of whether Fox retains the basic qualifications to remain an FCC licensee.” Other public interest groups want to participate in the proceeding, MAD said.
Fox opposed that request, but the FCC announced that it will make the change in a notice issued yesterday.
MAD’s been doing a pretty good job of forming an alliance of folks backing broader public conversations on this. That includes numerous traditional Conservatives, several FCC staffers, and even numerous one-time Fox employees (like Preston Padden); who all agree that Fox’s obvious propaganda is proving to be violently harmful to democracy, the discourse, and the broader public good:
MAD’s call for an evidentiary hearing on the Fox renewal received additional support in a filing by conservative writer William Kristol, a former Fox News contributor; and Ervin Duggan, a Democrat who was an FCC commissioner in the early 1990s and later became president of PBS. The call for a hearing was also backed by Alfred Sikes, a Republican who was FCC Chairman from August 1989 to January 1993.
There’s obviously some concerns that this precedent could be abused in the future by Republicans to attack local broadcast news outlets critical of the GOP (not that there’s many of those left in the Sinclair Broadcasting era).
But I still doubt this gambit even gets to that point. FCC boss Jessica Rosenworcel generally has proven reluctant to even acknowledge that telecom monopolies exist and are harmful. The idea that she’d actively push to strip away a Fox broadcast license and wade hip deep into a political firestorm seems well out of character for a regulator who’s clearly not keen on meaningfully challenging corporate power.
Still, we may get an interesting hearing out of this mess that puts Fox’s malicious disinformation and the calls for reform on wider public display.
We inhabit an era where the question “what do we do about Fox News propaganda?” sees a real shortage of solutions that are both practical and don’t run afoul of the First Amendment. Everything in the conversation tends to steer toward what’s not possible. Or they involve unworkable gibberish like trying to bring back the Fairness Doctrine (which wouldn’t apply to cable TV anyway).
So I think it’s good that activists are trying something creative and new. I think it’s good to have a broader conversation about what can actually be done about authoritarian and right wing propaganda. I think it’s good to form new, bipartisan coalitions that finally recognize the harm in partisan propaganda masquerading as news. Because our efforts up to this point have consisted of either stoic tut-tutting about what’s not possible under the First Amendment, or half-baked incoherence.