The First Amendment and the Communications Act expressly prohibit the Commission from censoring broadcast matter. Our role in overseeing program content is very limited. We license only individual broadcast stations. We do not license TV or radio networks (such as CBS, NBC, ABC or Fox) or other organizations that stations have relationships with, such as PBS or NPR, except if those entities are also station licensees. In general, we also do not regulate information provided over the Internet, nor do we intervene in private disputes involving broadcast stations or their licensees. Instead, we usually defer to the parties, courts, or other agencies to resolve these disputes.
The same source continues by discussing the factors considering in whether to renew a broadcast license (emphasis added)
Stations must renew their licenses before they expire. . . . Before we can renew a station’s license, we must first determine whether, during the preceding license term, the licensee has served the public interest, has not committed any serious violations of the Communications Act or the FCC’s rules, and has not committed other violations which, taken together, would constitute a pattern of abuse. To assist us in this evaluative process, a station licensee must file a renewal application (FCC Form 303-S), to tell us whether:
- It has sent us certain required reports;
- It or its owners have, or have had, any interest in a broadcast application in an FCC proceeding in which character issues were resolved adversely to the applicant or were left unresolved, or were raised in connection with a pending application;
- Its ownership is consistent with the Communications Act’s restrictions on licensees;
- Interests are held by foreign governments, foreign corporations, and non-U.S. citizens;
- There has been an adverse finding or adverse final action against it or its owners by a court or administrative body in a civil or criminal proceeding involving a felony, mass media-related antitrust or unfair competition law, the making of fraudulent statements to a governmental unit, or discrimination;
- There were any adjudicated violations of the Communications Act or the Commission’s rules during the current license term;
- The licensee or its owners have been denied federal benefit due to drug law violations;
- Its station operation complies with the Commission’s radiofrequency (RF) radio exposure standards;
- It has placed and maintained certain specified materials in its public inspection file in a timely manner;
- It has discontinued station operations for more than 12 consecutive months during the preceding license term and is currently broadcasting programming;
- It has adhered to its minimum operating schedule;
- Its advertising sales agreements discriminate on the basis of race or ethnicity and whether all such agreements held by the licensee contain nondiscrimination clauses;
- It has filed Form 396, Broadcast Equal Employment Opportunity Program Report; and
- In the case of an application for renewal of a television license, the station has complied with the limitations on commercial matter aired during children’s programming and filed the necessary Children’s Television Programming Reports (FCC Form 2100, Schedule H). . . .
[T]here are two issues related to broadcast journalism that are subject to Commission regulation: hoaxes and news distortion.Hoaxes. The broadcast by a station of false information concerning a crime or catastrophe violates the FCC's rules if:
- The station licensee knew that the information was false;
- Broadcasting the false information directly causes substantial public harm; and
- It was foreseeable that broadcasting the false information would cause such harm.In this context, a “crime” is an act or omission that makes the offender subject to criminal punishment by law, and a “catastrophe” is a disaster or an imminent disaster involving violent or sudden events affecting the public. The broadcast must cause direct and actual damage to property or to the health or safety of the general public, or diversion of law enforcement or other public health and safety authorities from their duties, and the public harm must begin immediately. If a station airs a disclaimer before the broadcast that clearly characterizes the program as fiction and the disclaimer is presented in a reasonable manner under the circumstances, the program is presumed not to pose foreseeable public harm.News Distortion. The Commission often receives complaints concerning broadcast journalism, such as allegations that stations have aired inaccurate or one-sided news reports or comments, covered stories inadequately, or overly dramatized the events that they cover. For the reasons noted previously, the Commission generally will not intervene in these cases because it would be inconsistent with the First Amendment to replace the journalistic judgment of licensees with our own. However, as public trustees, broadcast licensees may not intentionally distort the news. The FCC has stated that “rigging or slanting the news is a most heinous act against the public interest.” 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. Of particular concern would be evidence of the direction to employees from station management to falsify the news. However, absent such a compelling showing, the Commission will not intervene.
There is a very credible argument that Fox News fails to meet even this minimal standard for news distortion.
The Role Of Defamation Litigation