FCC giving special help to right-wing TV news company, Democrats allege

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Pai is helping Sinclair expand its reach into TV-owning homes, lawmakers say.

The House Democrats told Pai that recent news reports raise questions about “whether actions taken by the FCC under your leadership show a pattern of preferential treatment for Sinclair and whether a series of interactions between your office, the Trump campaign and Trump administration, and Sinclair demonstrate inappropriate coordination.”

Also on Monday, a New York Times story titled “How a Conservative TV Giant Is Ridding Itself of Regulation” said that “Pai has undertaken a deregulatory blitz, enacting or proposing a wish list of fundamental policy changes advocated by [Sinclair Chairman David] Smith and his company.”

Among other things, Pai’s FCC rolled back broadcast TV station ownership limits, which could help Sinclair complete an acquisition of Tribune Media Company that would let Sinclair reach 72 percent of TV-owning households in the US. The Democrats’ letter focused on that and several other actions taken since Pai became chairman in January. The letter says:

• The FCC established an expedited timeline for its review of the proposed Sinclair-Tribune transaction, allowing Sinclair to grow as quickly as possible.

• The FCC 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.

• The FCC has started a proceeding to allow TV broadcasters to begin using Next Gen TV—a technology whose primary patent-holder is Sinclair.

The letter (full text) was signed by Energy and Commerce Ranking Member Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.), Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Ranking Member Diana DeGette (D-Col.), and Communications and Technology Subcommittee Ranking Member Mike Doyle (D-Penn.).

The Democrats’ letter referred to several meetings, including one between President Trump and Smith, several between Pai and Trump, and several between Pai and Sinclair’s top executives.

The Trump campaign “struck a deal with Sinclair Broadcast Group during the campaign to try and secure better media coverage, his son-in-law Jared Kushner told business executives,” Politico reported in a December 2016 story mentioned in the Democrats’ letter.

In April, “Sinclair hired former Trump administration official Boris Epshteyn as a commentator and political analyst,” the letter said.

Pai’s office declined comment on the Democrats’ letter when contacted by Ars today. The Democrats requested a written response from Pai by August 28.

We contacted representatives of Sinclair today and will update this story if we get a response.

The Democrats pointed to another New York Times article that says Sinclair-owned TV stations are required to “air segments that tilt to the right.” Sinclair has “used its 173 television stations to advance a mostly right-leaning agenda since the presidency of George W. Bush,” the Times wrote in another article on Sinclair’s expansion and rivalry with Fox.

The Democrats told Pai that they are concerned that relaxing ownership limits will help Sinclair further expand its reach:

The United States has maintained for decades a policy that restricts the number of viewers a single broadcast entity can reach nationwide so that the American public has access to a diversity of local voices over the air. As the largest owner of television broadcast stations in the country, Sinclair had expanded to the limits of these FCC ownership rules. Since taking office, however, you have implemented a series of actions that ease these restrictions and allow Sinclair to expand its reach quickly. You have simultaneously proposed to allow the industry to adopt a new broadcast technology that will likely benefit Sinclair more than any other company.

The Democrats asked Pai to answer a series of questions about FCC discussions with the White House and Trump about Sinclair and about FCC meetings and correspondence with Sinclair. They also asked questions about the FCC’s processes for evaluating Next Gen TV, the proposed Sinclair-Tribune merger, TV license transfer applications, and proceedings that could further relax ownership limits.

Separately, Senate Democrats in March questioned Pai’s independence from Trump and asked for a commitment that the FCC will not try to stifle freedom of the press on behalf of the president. Pai said in response that he opposes any effort to infringe upon the freedom of the press.