Monday, 18 June, 2018

Inspector General Conducting Probe of Timing of FCC Actions and Sinclair Deal

Ajit Pai chairman of the FCC Tom Brenner New York Times File 2017 Ajit Pai chairman of the FCC
Lindsey Cook | 17 February, 2018, 01:37

An internal investigation is underway at the FCC to determine whether Chairman Ajit Pai improperly favored Sinclair Broadcasting with recent rule changes that allow broadcasters to own more TV stations.

Before that purchase, Pai pushed for deregulatory moves, including the loosening of local ownership restrictions, that ended up benefiting Sinclair Broadcasting's purchase of the newspaper company.

This loosening of broadcast-ownership rules came after press reports that Pai had conducted meetings with Sinclair executives days after the November 8, 2016 presidential election, and then again off FCC grounds days before Trump appointed him to chair the FCC.

"Chairman Pai has for many years called on the FCC to update its media ownership regulations to match the realities of the modern marketplace", the statement said.

With the UHF stations, a combined Sinclair-Tribune entity would reach 72 percent of the country.

The FCC also "established an expedited timeline for its review of the proposed Sinclair-Tribune transaction, allowing Sinclair to grow as quickly as possible", and it "approved Sinclair's multimillion-dollar deal to purchase stations owned by Bonten Media Group, shortly after the FCC revoked a processing guidance that would have required close scrutiny of the transaction", House Democrats said in a letter to Pai in August 2017. If true this might cause trouble for Mr. Pai, but I'm not sure this wasn't anything but good lobbying on the part of Sinclair.

Pai has maintained that the rule changes were under consideration before the Sinclair merger.

"The chairman is sticking to his long-held views, and given the strong case for modernizing these rules, it's not surprising that those who disagree with him would prefer to do whatever they can to distract from the merits of his proposals", Hart said. At the core of the probe is whether Pai and his aides within the FCC abused their power and the nature of Pai's relationship with Sinclair.

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Sinclair's merger is still awaiting approval from the Justice Department and the FCC.

At the heart of the issue is an unusual decision by the FCC back in April - just three months into Pai's chairmanship - in which the federal regulator brought back a rule that was previously discarded. Following today's news, these groups are also calling on Pai to recuse himself from all agency matters involving Sinclair.

Some members of Congress have asked Pai for such communications, but he has not responded.

David Hunt, the inspector general, has said he would not comment on whether there is an investigation. The FCC officials told the aides that they would open an investigation, according to four people with knowledge of the meetings.

The aides, all of whom work for Democratic lawmakers, would speak only on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is private.

An FCC spokesman said they had no comment.

"If the merger is approved, the conservative broadcaster would be able to air politically biased programming to more than 70 percent of the United States population", Free Press said today. The agency is waiting for Sinclair to propose divestitures that could resolve concerns about whether the enlarged company would exceed ownership caps, he said.

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