Fox Probe Stirs Talk

House telecommunications subcommittee chairman Jack Fields (R-Texas) said last week that in the interest of media diversity, he would not like to see the Federal Communications Commission shut down Fox Broadcasting.

Fields, in a phone interview, said he can’t comment on the merits of the FCC’s probe of whether Fox TV stations are or were once illegally foreign-controlled. However, he said “from a Republican standpoint, if Fox were to cease to exist as a network, we don’t see that as serving the public interest.”

Fields’ remarks highlighted a week of whirlwind activity in the FCC’s Fox probe. Among the developments:

* FCC commissioner James Quello fired off a letter to new Senate Commerce Committee chairman Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) criticizing “a series of unusual (FCC) staff decisions” in the Fox probe that has led to the appearance of a “star chamber” investigation. D.C. insiders interpreted the missive as a sign of growing tension between Hundt and Quello over developments in the investigation;

* The National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People – the organization that first raised the allegations against Fox’s alleged foreign ownership – asked the FCC to formally question ex-Fox chairman Barry Diller, ex-Fox Broadcasting prexy Jamie Kellner and a host of former and current Fox execs. The FCC already plans to depose Fox honcho Rupert Murdoch and other Fox employees later this month on their recollections of Murdoch’s 1985 purchase of the six Metromedia TV stations that are now Fox O&Os;

* Fox lobbyist Preston Padden sent a letter to FCC general counsel William Kennard protesting “the lack of fundamental fairness and objectivity” exhibited toward Fox. Padden added “my colleagues and I are frustrated beyond belief over the probe. The FCC reply assured Padden the investigation is being handled “in a fair, objective and impartial manner.”

Fox is fighting charges filed by both the NAACP and NBC questioning whether the weblet lied to the FCC in 1985 to get around rules barring foreigners from owning more than 25% of U.S. TV stations. Fox contends it fully disclosed its financing sources, and notes that Murdoch became a U.S. citizen to grease the station purchases.

If Fox is found guilty of shading the truth at the FCC, the network could have its station licenses revoked.

Not going unnoticed in the FCC’s probe is the angst felt by Republicans over what they view as activist Democratic chairman Reed Hundt’s heavy-handed treatment of Murdoch, whose conservative politics square well with the right-of-center revolution sweeping D.C.

Hundt insists the probe of Fox is not a political vendetta. Fields, the now-powerful Texas Republican, said he will “take Reed Hundt at his word.” But, Fields added, “I have to wonder why this (the investigation) has been done in such privacy.”

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