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The Trump FCC’s Parting Gift to Fox Is Bad News for Media Diversity

Trump may have soured on Fox since he lost the election, but it seems his FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, has not.

FCC chairman Ajit Pai, seen here at the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference, on Monday backed the proposed merger of T-Mobile and Sprint. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/flickr/cc)

FCC chairman Ajit Pai, seen here at the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference, on Monday backed the proposed merger of T-Mobile and Sprint. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/flickr/cc)

This holiday season is different in countless ways. A global pandemic, a fractured presidential transition and baseless claims of voter fraud underscore how chaotic this year has been.

But one thing rings familiar: The Federal Communication Commission is continuing its tradition of handouts to broadcasters by giving Fox Corporation — the television conglomerate owned by the Murdochs — a parting gift before the agency’s GOP leadership heads for the exit. Trump may have soured on Fox since he lost the election, but it seems his FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, has not.

In early October, Fox filed a request with the FCC for a waiver of the longstanding newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership (NBCO) rule that prohibits one company from owning too many newspapers and TV stations in a single market. The Murdochs need the waiver to continue to own WWOR-TV in New Jersey along with the New York Post. Fox also owns WNYW in New York City, the same metro market as WWOR.

Fox has already received multiple temporary waivers of the rule. Now, it’s arguing that a so-called “cloud of regulatory uncertainty” necessitates a permanent waiver. This is laughable, considering how long the Fox situation in New York and New Jersey has gone on — and how long WWOR has failed to provide local coverage to its New Jersey viewers.

The NBCO rule dates to 1975, when the FCC determined that having one company own local print and broadcast outlets in the same market would harm localism, diversity, and competition. Broadcast lobbyists like to claim that the rule is outdated because we have the internet now. But the fact remains that local broadcasters and newspapers still generate the vast majority of local-news coverage.

The fight over these rules will be argued before the Supreme Court next month. Fox has been fighting to get around these diversity protections since it bought WWOR in 2001. And recent events reveal just how far the outgoing Trump FCC might go to sneak in one last favor for Fox.

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The agency has signaled that it has little interest in examining the actual merits (or lack thereof) of Fox’s October request. Instead, it’s tipping the procedural scales heavily against public participation, signaling that it will grant Fox’s request without allowing adequate time for people from New York and New Jersey to have much of a say in the matter. This move would further erode the media-ownership rules before the Biden administration steps in. And only Fox stands to benefit from all of this.

In response to Fox’s waiver request, Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker sent a letter to the FCC outlining WWOR’s failures to serve New Jersey while the temporary waivers have been in place.

Though Fox claims that permanently owning both WWOR and the Post would not harm competition or viewpoint diversity in New Jersey, there is a well-documented and decades-long history of WWOR failing to serve New Jerseyans.

Public-interest advocates have been sounding the alarm about WWOR and have opposed Fox’s series of waivers for years. In 2013, WWOR closed its news department and instead began airing a TMZ-style “news” program called Chasing New Jersey. Then in September 2018, Fox sold its Secaucus TV station and moved its studio to New York — an act that Menendez described as “the final nail in the coffin on any legitimate claim to calling themselves a New Jersey broadcast station.” The letter from Menendez and Booker is just the latest iteration in a long series of requests urging the FCC to examine whether WWOR is meeting its legal obligations to New Jersey.

On Nov. 10, two powerful House reps —  Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D–New Jersey) and Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle (D–Pennsylvania) — wrote a letter to Chairman Pai demanding that the Commission leave controversial items for the Biden administration to address in adherence with “the norms set by past transfers of power.”

Rather than slow down, the Pai FCC put its pedal down. It placed the Fox waiver proceeding on a sped-up schedule. In the notice, the FCC set a two-week deadline, with opposition to the request initially due the day after Thanksgiving. In response to public pressure from Free Press and others, the agency added half a week to the comment period — which now wraps up on Dec. 8.

It couldn’t be clearer that Chairman Pai is just trying to ram this waiver through before he cedes power to the incoming administration. This attempt to rush a gift to Fox is the perfectly corrupt exclamation point to this particular FCC’s tenure. We’ve filed our opposition, and your voice matters too: Tell the Trump FCC that it’s not OK to sneak this last favor to Fox.

Carmen Scurato

Carmen Scurato

Carmen Scurato is Senior Policy Counsel at Free Press.

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