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A former Fox executive now argues Murdoch is unfit to own TV stations

Media magnate Rupert Murdoch, right, huddles with Preston Padden, president of network distribution for Fox, during a hearing of the Federal Communications Commission in May 1995. A generation later, Padden says Murdoch is unfit to hold the licenses for local television stations due to Fox News.
Kathleen Beall
Media magnate Rupert Murdoch, right, huddles with Preston Padden, president of network distribution for Fox, during a hearing of the Federal Communications Commission in May 1995. A generation later, Padden says Murdoch is unfit to hold the licenses for local television stations due to Fox News.

Preston Padden joined the Fox broadcast network a few years after its launch and helped founder Rupert Murdoch make it viable. Its ultimate success echoes Murdoch's triumphs around the globe, including in Australia, the U.K., Europe, Latin America and Asia. Fox introduced the world to The Simpsons, COPS, House, computerized first down lines on NFL broadcasts and more. Padden worked for Murdoch as a senior executive for six years in the 1990s.

"At the time, the company motto was 'Fortune favors the brave'," Padden says now. "He was my hero. There was no question in my mind that what we were doing was good for America, good for viewers, good for advertisers, good for television stations, good for democracy."

An Associated Press photograph from the time shows him conferring with Murdoch in Washington, D.C., at a crucial Federal Communications Commission meeting in 1995. He later left to become president of ABC Television.

Now, a generation later, Padden is once more now front and center at a fight in Washington involving the FCC - this time on the other side from Murdoch and his powerful corporation. Padden has joined a small band of highly vocal critics objecting to Fox's effort to seek renewal for its station in Philadelphia, called Fox 29.

Torn between the admiration he felt for Murdoch and the damage he perceived wrought by Fox

For Padden, it represented a sharp break with a man whom he considered, as he put it in an email to Murdoch himself, "a surrogate father/older brother/uncle."

"I was torn between my admiration and affection for Rupert on the one hand and the damage that, in my opinion, the Fox News Channel was doing to America," Padden says. "In the end, I decided I had to do something."

It may seem like a small-bore bureaucratic front on which to wage a battle. Yet if successful, it could prove a template to thwart Murdoch in his ownership at major markets around the country. The public interest group Media and Democracy Project filed a formal protest with the FCC. Padden filed his own informal letter of objection, as did a former PBS chief, Ervin Duggan, and William Kristol, the founding editor of the Weekly Standard magazine under Murdoch's ownership.

Former FCC chairman Michael K. Powell, a Republican appointee, says the agency has rarely exercised its authority to strip away broadcast licenses in recent decades. "Under the law, there's a pretty high renewal expectancy," Powell, now head of a broadband industry trade group, tells NPR. "It's a very, very high hurdle for the petitioners."

Gigi Sohn, who withdrew as a Biden administration nominee to be an FCC commissioner earlier this year, says the facts involving Fox and the Murdochs are so extraordinary that the agency should formally investigate whether to renew the Philadelphia license.

"It doesn't matter that it was Fox News, and not [Fox television] that knowingly lied to the public about the 2020 election results," Sohn adds. "They have the same ownership, and it's that ownership that lacks the requisite character to be a broadcast licensee."

Fox cites fears FCC action would "severely chill speech"

Fox Corp, Fox News, Fox Television Stations, Fox 29 and Murdoch himself declined comment through various spokespersons. A formal filing by Fox Corp. lawyers says the petitioners are wrongly asking the FCC to violate Fox's First Amendment rights by evaluating its coverage. The company's legal team also contends that it has no grounds on which to do so, as the statements that caused offense were aired on Fox News. The FCC does not regulate the content of cable news.

"Such an action," Fox's attorneys wrote last week about rejecting the license on these grounds, "would severely chill speech on both broadcast and other media outlets, contrary to the Commission's clear, staunch, and proper bipartisan support for the First Amendment."

Padden argues that Rupert Murdoch and his son and apparent corporate heir Lachlan Murdoch have proven unfit owners. While Fox Corp. and its sister company News Corp. are publicly traded, they are effectively controlled by Rupert Murdoch and the Murdoch family trust, which holds more than 40% of the twin firms' voting shares.

An exchange of compliments, gifts, and emails

When Padden worked for Murdoch, and lived in Washington, the media magnate stayed at his home while traveling there. More recently, Murdoch sent him wine from his Southern California vineyard. And the two men have remained in touch over the years.

Fissures forced their way to the surface at the outset of the pandemic as the isolated men corresponded - Murdoch from his estate in England, Padden from Colorado.

In March 2020, Padden received a note from Viet Dinh, Fox Corp.'s chief legal and policy officer who helps run the company on a day-to-day basis, asking him to write a public opinion piece defending the two Murdochs from criticism over Fox's treatment of COVID-19.

"I love Rupert and Lachlan," Padden wrote back declining the request, according to a copy of the email reviewed by NPR. "But to be honest, I was very uncomfortable with the "hoax" message several Fox hosts (and POTUS) were pedaling for weeks." POTUS in this case being then-President Donald Trump.

That month, Rupert Murdoch wrote to Padden that he was reading everything about the coronavirus he could. "All scary. Stay inside, no visitors! Like me."

A stark gap between what Murdoch said privately and what Fox stars told viewers

One day in October 2020, Murdoch emailed Padden that he didn't leave the house without a mask, on the orders of his then-wife, Jerry Hall. Yet when Padden turned on Fox News, he encountered a storm of disparagements of masks, dismissing them as political theater. Murdoch later told him he was going to get a vaccine as soon as he could in the U.K. and that he should get the shot, too.

"And again, I turned on Fox News and I'd hear a very different message," Padden says. "And so I started an effort - that was naive and foolish - to try to get Rupert to change course at Fox News. And we had a lot of email exchanges about that." He says he pressed Murdoch about what he saw on the air.

Much of Padden and Murdoch's email correspondence became public as part of the election tech company Dominion Voting System's behemoth defamation suit over false claims of election fraud. Some of it did not. Padden shared much of it with NPR for this story. (Murdoch did not respond to a request for comment about Padden and the personal emails.)

After the 2020 elections, Trump claimed he had been defrauded of victory. Many viewers were angry over Fox's initial coverage on Election Night, which included its projection - the first of any television network - that Joe Biden would win the key swing state of Arizona.

Murdoch stood by the call. "Rupert made it very clear to me that he thought Trump had, in fact, lost the election," Padden says now. "He was quite dismissive of Trump's arguments that the election had been stolen."

A suggestion by Padden relayed by Murdoch and then quickly abandoned

Yet Fox hosts amplified and embraced Trump's false claims of fraud in order to win back those alienated viewers. And, as Murdoch later conceded in sworn testimony, he and Lachlan allowed them to do so to sustain Fox's ratings and profits.

Padden watched with alarm as Fox hosts relentlessly urged viewers to pressure lawmakers to block the formal certification of Biden's win on January 6th, 2021. Jeanine Pirro compared the moment to the American Revolution. Lou Dobbs (ousted weeks later by Fox) suggested any Republican who affirmed Biden's victory might be criminal.

Padden suggested to Murdoch on Jan. 5, 2021, that Fox's biggest primetime stars - then Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham - should directly address viewers that night to make clear that Biden won. That same morning, Murdoch relayed the idea to Fox News chief executive Suzanne Scott, saying it has been suggested. He was swiftly talked out of it.

Scott told another top executive, "We need to be careful about using the shows and pissing off the viewers."

The next day brought mayhem and violence - and an assault on the U.S. Capitol.

Nothing changed, Padden says.

Echoes of Dominion case persist

Earlier this year, Fox and the Murdochs paid $787.5 million to settle the Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit. The presiding Delaware Superior Court judge ruled that Fox had defamed Dominion even before the case reached the jury phase. The settlement stopped the revelations but they continue to reverberate. Fox paid $12 million to resolve another case filed by a former Fox producer who, among other allegations, accused the company of pressuring her to give false testimony in the Dominion litigation. (Fox denied that.) The company also faces defamation suits from a former Biden official and a second election tech firm.

The FCC declined to comment. However, Gigi Sohn, the longtime broadcast policy analyst, says she found renewals rejected in the late 1960s for overt racism, in 1975 for radio stations improperly used to promote a candidate, and another three radio licenses turned down in 1980 over character issues of the owner.

"Under the FCC's Character Policy, lying to the government is about the worst sin a broadcast licensee can commit," Sohn tells NPR in an emailed comment. "While Fox did not technically lie to the government, it lied to the American people in a way that had a serious negative impact on our entire democracy. I'd argue that this is worse than lying to the government."

Earlier this year, Padden went public with an opinion piece run in the Daily Beast, owned by Barry Diller, who led the creation of Fox Broadcasting for Murdoch.

For Padden, the dustup over the Philadelphia license could offer a template to challenge Fox and the Murdochs repeatedly. They own 29 stations, with a presence in 14 of the nation's 15 largest markets.

Padden says he had to act.

"I could see the tremendous damage that, in my opinion, Fox News Channel was doing to the country," Padden says. "I could see it in the news. I could see it in friends and family who watched Fox News. And I thought, 'You helped establish Rupert as a force in American television. You, Preston, have a responsibility to do something'."

Copyright 2024 NPR

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.

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