Yes, But It’s Never Gonna Happen

Andrew Feinberg at Hillicon Valley reported that the media watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) has asked the Commerce committees in the House and Senate to hold hearings on whether or not the broadcast licenses for Fox should be revoked. As it turns out, there is a “character clause” in the FCC’s public spectrum licensing agreement that requires that license holders (persons, conglomorates, or corporations) must be citizens of good character. Essentially, if you are going to get to broadcast on the public airwaves, you have to be the kind of person who can reasonably be trusted to serve the public interest.

One way you show that you aren’t of good character: have a felony conviction. As the FCC puts it:

we believe a propensity to comply with the law generally is relevant to the Commission’s public interest analysis, and that an applicant’s or licensee’s willingness to violate other laws and, in particular, commit felonies, also bears on our confidence that an applicant or licensee will conform to FCC rules and policies.

Makes sense. “The fruit doesn’t fall from the tree” and all that. The virtue approach to the moral life —that used by Aristotle and Aquinas—suggests that our behavior grows out of the habits and ways of thinking that are deeply imbedded in our character. Who we are conditions what we do.

So, what do we know about the license holders for Fox. A few days ago, Great Britain’s House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee released a report on the News of the World phone hacking scandal that (as CNN notes):

accused Murdoch and his son James of showing “willful blindness” to phone hacking at the News of the World tabloid and said the newspaper “deliberately tried to thwart the police investigation” into the illegal activity.

Clearly, between James and Rupert, there was some shady stuff going on. Hacking into people’s cell phone accounts, both in the UK and here (including those of families of 9/11 victims) is not something that people of good character do (or have their people do). I’d even guess, activity that was felony-worthy, were it examines in a court of law, which it may be at some point. One can make the argument that leaders should be understood as distinct from the company; the company shouldn’t be lumped in with poor actors. But given that the News Corp. board expressed full support for its leaders today, that’s a hard call to make.

Easy slam dunk on questionable character.

But the FCC doesn’t really uphold that part of its rules. They essentially never revoke licenses for reasons of character. The FCC investigated Murdoch and Fox more than 20 years ago for issues of fraud, but that was not cause for revocation. I’m not sure that felony conviction in England would necessarily violate the FCC rules. It probably has to be in the US.

On the other hand, there is an argument to be made that the character rule is an outdated vestige of a bygone era. Television stations are no longer really run by individual people. In this case, Fox is part of News Corp., a multi-national company with massive media holdings that is governed by a board of directors. Even if the Murdochs go, without a board change, the company will likely keep its culture. How do you assess the character of the board? Is it by individual or as a group? If the FCC is serious about character (which is unlikely), then it needs to bring the rules into the 21st century.

But let’s say it is concerned about character of license holders, there’s the practical wrinkle. In order to do revoke Fox’s license, the FCC would have to be willing to be vilified as a partisan player. This charge would be unfair; revocation based on such egregious examples of poor character would certainly be justified. Yet, already under attack by Republicans, revocation would certainly be portrayed as an anti-free speech attempt by liberals to silence the mouthpiece of conservative perspectives, Fox News. Additionally, because of the jobs and massive revenues that Fox generates, revocation would also be portrayed as an attack on American workers and the creative industries that make our nation great. The patriot flags would be waving. And that’s why there is no way that the license will be revoked.

It is perhaps a quaint notion that when we grant companies access to public holdings—from the broadcast spectrum to resources in the national lands—they should be required to contribute not just to their own good, but to the public good as well. That’s part of the deal. If you want to benefit merely the shareholders, give up the public spectrum license and focus on cable alone. That’s fine. But if you want public airwaves, keep the public in mind.

Quaint notion, the common good. Quaint, but the only real chance that we have to live together despite our differences.

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