The Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office, headed by the embattled Marilyn Mosby, has filed a formal complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) against a local news station for alleged “blatantly slanted, dishonest, misleading, racist, and extremely dangerous” coverage in a move many believe is an attempt by Mosby to censor reporting on her own federal criminal investigation.
The May 5 complaint, addressed to FCC acting chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, accuses WBFF (a.k.a. FOX45 News) — the Baltimore-based Fox-affiliate — of partaking in an “intentional crusade against … Mosby, which given today’s politically charged and divisive environment, is extremely dangerous.” It also details what Mosby’s communications director, Zy Richardson, believes to be a “disconcerting and dangerous pattern: beginning with a slanted, rigged, misleading, or inflammatory headline; followed by conspiracy theory; and supported with guest commentary from disgruntled ex-employees or political opponents that[sic] lend false credibility.”
“The truth of the matter,” Richardson says, “is I am deeply worried that if the WBFF’s coverage is not curtailed and ceased, then someone is going to get hurt. I implore and encourage you … to enlist the full investigative and enforcement powers granted to you by the Federal government to take action against the WBFF as soon as possible.” (Emphasis added).
Richardson cites FCC rules and guidance that dictate “broadcasters may not intentionally distort the news,” and that “rigging or slanting the news is a most heinous act against the public interest.” To Richardson, an investigation “would prove that the WBFF administrators are guilty of such ‘heinous acts.'”
But in this democracy, no Government agency can authenticate the news, or should try to do so. We will therefore eschew the censor’s role, including efforts to establish news distortion in situations where Government intervention would constitute a worse danger than the possible rigging itself.
The FCC further explains that its “authority to respond to these complaints is narrow in scope, and the agency is prohibited by law from engaging in censorship or infringing on First Amendment rights of the press,” and it “cannot interfere with a broadcaster’s selection and presentation of news or commentary.”
The complaint argues that the number of articles WBFF has published about Mosby, when compared to that of three other local stations, “would give any reasonable person pause.” According to the letter, in 2020, WBFF wrote 248 stories specifically about Mosby, compared to WBAL’s 26 stories, WJZ’s 46 stories, and WMAR’s 10. Despite this, it appears that a portion of Mosby’s complaint may be rooted in WBFF’s status as a Fox-affiliated station.
Indeed, Richardson argues, not citing examples, that “[i]n the public sphere, Fox News is infamous for its bias against people of color, and even more against those who could be deemed ‘progressive’ people of color.” The tirade against Fox News continued, as Richardson pointed out that “the Fox national news network airs a nightly show with Tucker Carlson, despite recent calls by civil rights groups to terminate his employment because of Carlson’s frequent endorsements of white supremacy views.”
But Richardson cited WBFF-specific articles that she believes “rise beyond mere professional irresponsibility and become what can only be reasonably deemed malicious”:
These articles surely appear to be negative press about Mosby, but nonetheless are apparently “so slanted that they are not simply a ‘dog-whistle’ to the right-wing, they have become a megaphone that amplifies, encourages, and provides fodder for racists.” Furthermore, Richardson cites the radical-left Media Matters‘ assessment that the Fox-affiliate was antisemitic for describing Mosby as a “George Soros ‘puppet'” as proof-positive the FCC should censor their station.
In response, WBFF stated that “Mosby who is the focus of a federal criminal investigation, the subject of a scathing report from the City Inspector General and whose house is under an Internal Revenue Service lien for unpaid federal income tax is attacking a media source for its reporting on her,” asserting that “FOX45 News is committed to investigating corruption in public officials, asking tough questions and holding leaders accountable … While we understand that it may not be popular with the individuals and institutions upon which we are shining a light, we stand by our reporting.”
The complaint from Mosby’s office was dated “the day before the Radio Television Digital News Organization awarded FOX45 News four Regional Edward R. Murrow awards for journalism excellence. Three of the awards were for accountability reporting.”
Press freedom organization The Media Institute has also weighed in on the complaint from Mosby’s office, saying:
This is a direct and unacceptable threat to the First Amendment rights of the journalists involved.
It is obvious that freedom of the press would cease to be a reality for local broadcasters if every government official who received coverage perceived as unfavorable exerted a chilling effect on local TV news coverage by calling for an FCC investigation.
It is worth noting that the First Amendment creates a high legal hurdle for government-enforced censorship, as the broadcaster must “[know] the information is false and will cause substantial ‘public harm’ if aired.” Furthermore, “the public harm: must begin immediately and cause direct and actual damage to property or the health or safety of the general public; or divert law enforcement or public health and safety authorities from their duties.” (Emphasis added).
This comes as congressional Democrats are mounting a pressure campaign to force the FCC into “content-based censorship” over the sale of a Miami, Florida, radio station to a conservative broadcaster.