Rupert Murdoch, the Australian-born conservative news titan, announced his retirement from News Corp., the parent company of Fox, Fox News and countless other media properties across the Anglosphere, on Thursday. He named his son Lachlan Murdoch, currently the executive chair and CEO of Fox Corporation, to take his place as chairman of the umbrella company.
Murdoch’s departure, at the age of 92, comes as his most prized media property ― Fox News ― faces an uncertain future due to the legal fallout from its promotion of former President Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. Part of the uncertain future facing Fox News, and News Corp. more broadly, could come down to one issue: character.
In April, Fox News reached a $787 million settlement with the vote machine manufacturer Dominion Voting Systems after the company’s news personalities flogged falsehoods on-air that the company’s machines were somehow corrupted. The settlement prevented Murdoch from having to take the stand in a trial. The cable news broadcaster faces another defamation lawsuit from Smartmatic, also a voting machine company, for promoting similar falsehoods. Smartmatic is seeking $2.7 billion in damages.
In addition to these levied and looming financial losses, Fox News’ promotion of Trump’s lies could also cost the Murdochs the broadcasting licenses issued by the Federal Communication Commission for its local broadcast network affiliates.
In July, a media watchdog nonprofit called the Media and Democracy Project filed a petition with the FCC calling for an evidentiary hearing on whether the agency should deny the broadcast license recertification for WTXF-TV, a Philadelphia Fox franchise, for its rebroadcast of Fox News’ promotion of Trump’s lies, arguing News Corp. fails the “character” test the FCC applies to owners of broadcast television affiliates.
“FOX’s intentional news distortion, sanctioned at the highest levels of its corporate structure, and fabricated by management and news hosts amounts to misconduct that violates the FCC’s policy on the character required of broadcast licensees, and was so egregious as to shock the conscience,” the petition states.
The push to reject the broadcast station’s license has been joined by former Fox Senior Vice President Preston Padden, whose emails with Rupert Murdoch made it into the Dominion record, conservative-turned-Never Trumper Bill Kristol, former FCC commissioner Ervin Duggan and former FCC chairman Alfred Sikes.
While a denial may be unlikely, the fallout from the Murdochs’ catastrophic decision to follow Trump down the rabbit hole of conspiracy may not just cost them billions of dollars. It could require them to sell their affiliate stations if their actions prevent the renewal of their licenses.
The FCC licenses television networks to broadcast over the public airwaves under the legal authorization of the Communications Act. These licenses come up for renewal every eight years and may be challenged if the station does not broadcast in the “public interest, convenience, and necessity.” One way to violate the public interest provision is through “news distortion.” (This does not apply to cable television stations as they do not use public airwaves to broadcast.)
While the FCC routinely stays out of policing questions of bias in media due to First Amendment considerations, it does state that “broadcast licensees may not intentionally distort the news.”
“The Commission will investigate a station for news distortion if it receives documented evidence of rigging or slanting, such as testimony or other documentation, from individuals with direct personal knowledge that a licensee or its management engaged in the intentional falsification of the news,” the FCC says on its website.
Denial of a television station’s license over the content it broadcast would be unusual for the FCC. The most common reasons why stations are denied licenses is when station owners are convicted of crimes or if owners let their license lapse.
The petition to deny the Philadelphia Fox affiliate’s license focuses on its broadcast of Fox News Sunday, which promoted Trump’s election lies, constituted impermissible news distortion. To prove that the distortion was intentional, the petition relies on the court record in the Dominion case.
The record amassed in the Dominion case showed that Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch were heavily involved in the editorial decision at Fox News to embrace Trump’s lies despite knowing they were false.
“Seems Trump listening to terrible advice from Giuliani versus Trump family wanting to wave white flag! Not sure of this but sounds likely. Melania very level headed. Ivanka too but would never go public,” Rupert Murdoch wrote in a Nov. 6, 2020, email.
In the immediate aftermath of the election, Trump attacked Fox News for not promoting his election fraud lies. The channel began to bleed viewers to other conservative outlets like Newsmax, which frequently attacked Fox for failing to support the president’s lies. This hit News Corp.’s stock price.
“Apparently [Trump] told friends that Lachlan and I have betrayed him. Stock down 5 or 6% today. Real bargain!” Rupert Murdoch said in a Nov. 12, 2020, email.
The stock price drop and fears of losing ground to conservative alternatives led Fox News executives to direct on-air talent to parrot the president’s line in order to appease their viewers. Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott emailed Rupert Murdoch on Nov. 9, 2020, to press upon him the urgency of “keep[ing] the audience who loves and trusts us…we need to make sure they know we aren’t abandoning them and still champions for them.”
On Nov. 13, 2020, Fox News’ research team produced an internal fact-check of Trump’s allegations that found “no evidence of widespread fraud” and claims that Dominion’s machines flipped votes to be “100% false” and “mathematically impossible,” among many other things. Internal communications from Rupert Murdoch, Lachlan Murdoch, top Fox News executives, and on-air talent like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, all privately cast doubt on the conspiracy theories. And yet Fox News continued to promote them all the way up to the Jan. 6. 2020, insurrection.
Following the insurrection, Fox News immediately began promoting the conspiracy that the insurrection was committed by Antifa or Black Lives Matter. (It wasn’t.)
“The extent of willful news distortion on the part of FOX executives and hosts most certainly bears heavily on ultimate Commission action on the application and the licensee,” the petition to FCC states.
The Philadelphia Fox affiliate opposes the denial of its license renewal, arguing that none of the claims are made against its own reporting, the FCC does not consider allegations of defamation as bearing on license renewal and the First Amendment protects the freedom of speech.