Pai to Dems: Sinclair/Tribune Review Has Been By the Book

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai says 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.

That came in a Sept. 15 letter in response to the House Energy & Commerce Committee Democrat’s own letter last month expressing concern that that was the case.

The chairman said his meeting with the President—there have been two of them—were on the order of a job interview in one instance and a second meeting after he had the job, at neither of which was any issue involving Sinclair Broadcast Group discussed.

Related: FCC Seeks More Evidence for Sinclair/Tribune Deal Claims

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.

Pai also said two members of his staff had met with Sinclair execs as well, with an ex parte filed for the one meeting for which it was required.

Citing various news stories, including from B&C, about rule changes, White House meetings, and more that the legislators suggest add up to big questions about whether the independent agency has been truly independent, the Democrats, led by House Energy & Commerce Committee ranking member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), had suggested that the chairman had expedited the review of the Sinclair-Tribune merger to allow Sinclair to grow quickly, despite calls for extension of time and for Sinclair to provide more information to quantify or validate its public interest claims for the deal.

They also pointed to the FCC's approval of Sinclair's purchase of Bonten stations shortly after revoking a 2014 Media Bureau guidance on the FCC's close scrutiny of deals involving sharing agreements.

As to the timeline for the deal review, Pai said the FCC established the same comment period as for other significant TV station mergers, including the $4.6 billion merger of Nexstar and Media General approved under his Democratic predecessor, Tom Wheeler.

Related: Wheeler Says FCC Bent Rules to Help Sinclair

He called the pleading cycle consistent with precedent and not expedited. He also said that, in regard to the suggestion that his restoration of the UHF discount was an effort to facilitate the deal, no one at Sinclair or Tribune or their representatives informed him of a possible deal before the vote to reinstate the discount. He also pointed out that the Media Bureau on Sept. 14 had sought further information on the deal. he did not mention, though he could have, that the request was essentially to provide that hard evidence of public interest benefits that critics, including Pallone, said was lacking.

Sinclair's response isn't due until Oct. 5, after which the public will have an opportunity to comment on that information. The Sinclair deal was filed in June.

The chairman pointed out that the Bonten deal was unopposed, took about the same time as other transactions to vet, and that sharing agreement in question did not rise to the level of attribution or control.

John Eggerton

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.