The primary US media regulator has done little to punish Fox News for spreading false claims about the 2020 election.
It could, theoretically, target Fox Corp Chairman Rupert Murdoch and some of his Fox broadcasting partners.
The Federal Communications Commission’s oversight of Fox’s broadcast license means the regulator could bring its power to bear on Murdoch’s admission that he could have stopped Fox News from spreading misleading claims about the Dominion voting system, which it helped perpetrate That the 2020 election was stolen.
“But I didn’t,” Murdoch said in a statement to the lawsuit in which Dominion Voting Systems is seeking $1.6 billion in damages.
Experts who spoke with NBC News don’t expect action, citing the difficulty of how the FCC has changed over time and bringing major challenges in a situation where its power is relatively limited.
The FCC’s most relevant power with respect to Murdoch is broadcasting licensing, in which it allows private companies to use the public airwaves as long as certain criteria are met. Among those criteria are what’s called “character qualifications,” which can include felony convictions as well as other court convictions.
But the FCC has little power when it comes to cable TV channels that don’t use the public airwaves to broadcast.
“The election fraud lies happened on Fox News, which is not regulated by the FCC,” said Jessica Gonzalez, co-CEO of the media advocacy group Free Press. “But Murdoch owns several broadcast stations and I think it would be fair for the FCC to ask whether he is of the fit moral character to own those licenses in light of recent revelations that Murdoch knew the use of election fraud. The claims were false and were allowed to air.”
And though calls for the FCC to act are still relatively few, there are some who are beginning to wonder why it hasn’t at least said something.
“Since World War II, the FCC has had a responsibility to encourage a culture of both free speech and truth in the media,” Reid Hundt tweeted, who chaired the FCC during President Bill Clinton’s first term in office. “But the Fox story at least reveals an either/or choice for that firm. Shouldn’t the FCC at least comment?”
In a phone call, Hundt said the evidence made public by the Dominion case is enough to launch an investigation by the FCC and possibly the Federal Trade Commission. He said there are many questions that can be asked of Murdoch and Fox Corp, particularly whether false claims about the election or even other topics such as the Covid pandemic spread through Murdoch’s other businesses. including its broadcast partners.
“That’s the question to investigate: Is it systematic in all coverage?” Hundt said.
Hundt theorized that the FCC could take action if an investigation found that misleading information was spread through Fox Corporation.
“Those licenses should only be held when you serve the public interest,” Hundt said. “Deliberately lying to the people is not in the public interest.”
The FCC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A Fox News spokeswoman directed inquiries on possible FCC action to Fox Corp. A spokeswoman for Fox Corp declined to comment.
Some people familiar with the FCC expect action. The regulator has over the decades forced media companies to splurge and has sought to aggressively enforce its rules. This began to change following a widespread deregulation movement in the 1980s.
“Through decades of neoliberal rule, we’ve made our regulatory agencies almost powerless in many cases, and I think that’s a problem,” said Victor Picard, professor of media policy and political economy at the University of Pennsylvania. History of FCC.
The FCC’s role in regulating interstate and international media in the US is primarily focused on the business side, promoting competition, and encouraging innovation and investment. And what little power it has over its contents has waned. The FCC has oversight of the public airwaves, which are no longer the communication barriers they once were.
Fox has faced some FCC challenges in the past on other grounds. In 2012, a handful of watchdog groups called on the FCC to revoke Fox’s license in connection with Murdoch’s voicemail hacking scandal. The FCC commissioner said at the time that the regulator took the situation seriously, although no major action has since been taken. And in 1995, the FCC under Hundt led a 17-month investigation of Murdoch’s News Corp into whether Murdoch’s control of eight Fox stations violated foreign ownership rules. Murdoch is Australian and became a US citizen in 1985.
Andrew Schwartzman, senior counsel at the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society, said in an email that the FCC has historically not been aggressive in enforcing the character policy and has found itself complicit in “weakening and not enforcing” the policy.
Murdoch’s attempt to use Fox News oversight to go after Fox Corp. may fall well short of the FCC’s modern enforcement of its character policy.
“In short, just about the only thing that is actionable is the transgression of a principal involved in the day-to-day management of a station (‘broadcast-related misconduct’),” Schwartzman said over email. “The only other capital offense in the FCC is lying to a federal agency in a material manner.”
Schwartzman also said that the time frame for such a move would be longer, with licenses being revoked only when they are up for renewal – once every eight years.
“Therefore, it is almost impossible to lose a license for non-broadcast-related misconduct, and even if there was a strong case, it could not be brought for five years and the litigation would go on for years more,” Schwartzman he said.
The current structure of the FCC makes it particularly unlikely to agree on a partisan decision. The agency is usually governed by a board made up of five Senate-confirmed commissioners – three from the president’s party and two from the opposition. But Biden’s FCC is stuck in a rare 2-2 impasse. Biden’s choice for the first commissioner, Gigi Sohn, was the target of an unprecedented smear campaign. He withdrew his candidature on Tuesday.
There are a few examples of license cancellations by the FCC. In 1966, Rev. Everett C. Parker mounted a successful legal challenge to WLBT-TV’s license renewal in Jackson, Mississippi, after the channel refused to air an NBC news program in which Thurgood Marshall discussed Brown v. Board of the Supreme Court . The Marshall of Education decision would later join the Supreme Court.
But the FCC has changed significantly since then, as has the broader media and political environment in which it operates. Any such effort would inevitably face significant pushback from Republicans, who have already argued that the Biden administration has weaponized the US government against conservatives.
Still, some are hoping the FCC may seize upon the Dominion lawsuit to reassert its authority, possibly drawing on moments in history in which it flexed its regulatory power. Pickard of the University of Pennsylvania, led the FCC’s move in 1941 to force the National Broadcasting Company (later known as NBC, the parent company of NBC News) to divest one of its two major radio networks. pointed to. The split network will become ABC.