The top US media regulator can’t do much to punish Fox News for spreading false claims about the 2020 election.

In theory, it could target Fox Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch and some of his Fox broadcast affiliates.

The Federal Communications Commission’s oversight of Fox’s broadcast licenses means the regulator could exercise its power over Murdoch by admitting that it could have prevented Fox News from spreading misleading claims about Dominion Voting Systems, which by extension helped spread the lie. that the 2020 election was stolen.

«But I didn’t,» Murdoch said in a statement for the lawsuit in which Dominion Voting Systems is seeking $1.6 billion in damages.

The experts who spoke to NBC News are not expecting action, citing how the FCC has changed over time and the difficulty of presenting big challenges in a situation where its power is relatively limited.

The most relevant FCC power in relation to Murdoch is the broadcast licensing, in which it allows private companies to use the public airwaves as long as certain criteria are met. Among those criteria is what he calls “character qualifications”, which may include felony convictions and other court sentences.

But the FCC has much less power When it comes to cable TV channels, they don’t use public airwaves for transmission.

“The voter fraud lies happened on Fox News, which is not regulated by the FCC,” said Jessica Gonzalez, co-executive director of 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 has the proper moral character to own those licenses in light of recent revelations that Murdoch knew the voter fraud claims were lies and allowed them to air. .»

And while 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 foster a culture of both free speech and truth in the media.» tweeted Reed Hundt, who chaired the FCC during the first term of President Bill Clinton. “But the Fox story reveals that they are an option for that company at least. Shouldn’t the FCC at least comment?

In a phone call, Hundt said the evidence made public by the Dominion case is enough for the FCC and possibly the Federal Trade Commission to launch an investigation. He said there are a number of questions that could be posed to Murdoch and Fox Corp., particularly whether false claims about the election or even other issues like the covid pandemic spread through Murdoch’s other businesses, including its affiliates. of transmission.

“That is the research question: Is it consistent across all coverage?” Hundt said.

Hundt theorized that if an investigation found misleading information that had been disseminated through Fox Corporation, the FCC could act.

“Those licenses are only supposed to be held if they serve the public interest,” Hundt added. «Intentionally lying to people is not consistent with the public interest.»

The FCC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A Fox News spokesman directed inquiries about possible FCC action to Fox Corp. A Fox Corp. spokesman declined to comment.

Few people familiar with the FCC expect action. In decades past, the regulator forced media companies out of business and tried to aggressively enforce its rules. That began to change after a broader deregulation movement in the 1980s.

“Through decades of neoliberal rule, we have left our regulatory agencies almost powerless in many cases, and I think that is a problem,” said Victor Pickard, a professor of media policy and political economy at the University of Pennsylvania who has written about the history of the fcc.

The FCC’s role in regulating interstate and international media in the US is mainly focused on the business side, promote competition and encourage innovation and investment. And what little power it has over content has diminished. The FCC oversees the public airwaves, which are no longer the communications bottlenecks they once were.

Fox has faced some challenges from the FCC before for other reasons. In 2012, a handful of watchdog groups asked the FCC to revoke Fox’s licenses over Murdoch’s connection to a voicemail hacking scandal. The FCC commissioner at the time said the regulator took the situation seriously although there was no major action after that. And in 1995, the FCC under Hundt investigated Murdoch’s News Corp for 17 months on 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 «twisted itself into knots by weakening and not enforcing» the policy. policy.

An attempt to use Murdoch’s oversight of Fox News to go after Fox Corp. could end up well short of the modern application of the FCC’s character policy.

“In essence, about the only thing that is actionable is a felony conviction of a director who is involved in the day-to-day running of a station (‘broadcast misconduct’),” Schwartzman said by email. «The only other capital offense in the FCC is lying to a federal agency in a material way.»

Schwartzman also noted that the time frame for such a move would be long, as licenses would only be revoked when they are due for renewal, once every eight years.

«So it’s almost impossible to lose a license for non-broadcast misconduct, and even if there was a strong case, it probably couldn’t be filed for another five years and the litigation would go on for years to come,» Schwartzman said.

The current composition of the FCC makes it particularly unlikely that it will agree on a partisan decision. The agency is generally 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 has been stuck in a rare 2-2 stalemate. Biden’s choice for first commissioner, Gigi Sohn, was the target of an unprecedented smear campaign. She withdrew her candidacy on Tuesday.

There are few examples of the FCC revoking a license. In 1966, the Rev. Everett C. Parker rode a successful legal challenge to WLBT-TV’s license renewal in Jackson, Mississippi, after the channel refused to air an NBC News show in which Thurgood Marshall discussed the Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education. Marshall would later join the Supreme Court.

But the FCC has changed considerably since then, as has the broader media and political environment in which it operates. Any such effort would inevitably lead to significant pushback from Republicans, who have already argued that the Biden administration has armed the US government against conservatives.

Still, some are hopeful that the FCC could use Dominion’s lawsuit to assert its authority, possibly drawing on moments in history when it flexed its regulatory power. Pickard of the University of Pennsylvania pointed to the FCC’s decision in 1941 to force the National Broadcasting Company (later to be known as NBC, the parent company of NBC News) to sell one of its two dominant radio networks. The divested network would become ABC.