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Demand Progress Wants FCC IG to Investigate Pai Over Sinclair

Demand Progress, which strongly opposes Sinclair's proposed purchase of Tribune, wants the FCC inspector general (IG) to investigate chairman Ajit Pai over what it, and some Democrats on the Hill and at the FCC, suggest are decisions meant to favor the broadcaster.

"From the beginning, chairman Pai has been eager to roll out the red carpet for Sinclair and grease the wheels to enable this merger to happen," Demand Progress said in launching the petition.

Among the moves it and others have cited were Pai's proposal, which was adopted on a party-line vote, to restore the UHF discount, which essentially paved the way for the deal, which would otherwise have translated to stations reaching over 70% of the country when the FCC limit is 39%.

Demand Progress also pointed to meetings Pai had had with Sinclair execs.

At press time, the petition had 14,389 signatures toward a goal of 25,000, but that total had increased from 11,346 in just the time it took this story to be prepped for posting.  UPDATE: By 12:25 p.m. the total was over 25,000.

The FCC is on day 173 of its informal 180-day shot clock on vetting the deal, though one plugged-in FCC watcher was looking for a decision more toward the end of the first quarter. The FCC has more than once gone far past that 180-day mark, including when Sinclair bought Allbritton stations in 2014 (327 days), though that was under a previous chairman and Pai has made a more efficient and predictable process one of his reform initiatives.

The FCC's most recent action directly related to Sinclair was a proposed multi-million dollar fine for running paid promotions for a cancer institute without labeling them appropriately, though the commissioner Democrats did not support the action, saying the fine was too small and was actually a break for Sinclair.

But critics also point to the FCC's approval of the ATSC 3.0 standard, which Sinclair has been pitching (and for which it owns a handful of patents), and moves to loosen duopoly rules that could also benefit the broadcasters, though they could also benefit any broadcaster who wanted to heavy up.

In a September letter to Hill Dems concerned about the deal, Pai said there has been no inappropriate coordination between the Donald Trump White House, Sinclair and the FCC over the Sinclair-Tribune merger, and that there has been no pattern of preferential treatment shown Sinclair in a deal whose vetting has been by the book and on a timetable common to such transactions, including under other regimes.

He did say he had met with Sinclair three times since the November election, but in only one meeting were pending issues discussed and that one was followed by the requisite ex parte notification.