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Dems Seek Investigation of FCC Chair Over Sinclair-Tribune

Some high-profile Hill opponents of the proposed Sinclair-Tribune merger, or at least of the way the FCC is handling that review and other related media-ownership decisions, want FCC chair Ajit Pai investigated.

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), ranking member of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, joined by Overnight and Government Reform Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) have asked FCC inspector general David Hunt to investigate whether Pai has "taken improper actions to benefit Sinclair Broadcast Group."

An FCC spokesperson called the request part of an effort by Democrats to target Sinclair over its perceived conservative political views, and branded the allegations a baseless attempt to distract from the merits of the deal.

Specifically, Pallone and Cummings want Hunt to determine whether Pai's actions show a pattern of preferential treatment toward Sinclair and whether there was inappropriate coordination, which would likely be any coordination, among the FCC and the White House and Sinclair, as well as whether use of nongovernmental e-mail or social media in a series of interactions complied with the Federal Records Act and FOIA.

The legislators outlined their request in a letter to Hunt Monday (Nov. 13).

They indicated they were referring to what they said was Pai's "repeated refusal to respond to congressional inquiries about recent reports that he may have timed a series of FCC actions over the past year to financially benefit Sinclair and to assist in its attempts to purchase Tribune Media Company."

Pai's spokesperson said of the letter: “Unfortunately, this request appears to be part of many Democrats’ attempt to target one particular company because of its perceived political views, an effort that dates all the way back to 2004 when Ranking Member Pallone, Ranking Member Cummings, and other Democrats demanded that the FCC investigate Sinclair based solely on the content of a documentary they didn’t like and that hadn’t even aired. Any claim that Chairman Pai is modifying the rules now to benefit one particular company is completely baseless. For many years, Chairman Pai has called on the FCC to update its media ownership regulations -- one of which dates back to 1975.  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.”

Pai has rolled back a number of decisions of his predecessor, Tom Wheeler, that he opposed and criticized at the time they were approved, including 2014 guidance on how the FCC would treat joint sales agreements and sharing arrangements between noncommonly owned stations; restoring the FCC's UHF discount; and two proposals scheduled for a vote this week (Nov. 16) -- potentially eliminating or loosening some media ownership limits, and allowing for the rollout of ATSC 3.0 transmissions. The FCC also recently eliminated the main studio rule, which required broadcasters to maintain a studio in their community of license.

Pallone and Cummings pointed to the timing of decisions that impact Sinclair deals (such as its purchase of Bonten stations) and proposed deals (the Tribune acquisition), and said they want some answers.

The letter noted that Pallone had twice written to Pai about the allegations, but clearly the FCC chair's answers were not sufficient.

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.