Two Democratic lawmakers today called for an investigation into whether Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai “has taken actions to improperly beneﬁt Sinclair Broadcast Group.”
The FCC has made several decisions that benefit Sinclair, a broadcast station owner with a right-wing tilt. Among other things, the FCC rolled back broadcast TV station ownership limits, which could help Sinclair complete an acquisition of Tribune Media Company and, in the process, reach 72 percent of TV-owning households in the US.
According to two representatives, Pai hasn’t sufficiently answered questions about his relationship with Sinclair. Those congressmen are Energy and Commerce ranking member Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.) and Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who said as much in a letter to FCC Inspector General David Hunt.
Pallone and Cummings wrote that they have “repeatedly asked for all correspondence between Chairman Pai, his office, and Sinclair,” without much success. Now they want the FCC inspector general to investigate. They continued:
Because of the number of incident[s] where members of this administration have used personal communications services for government business, we also inquired whether the Chairman or his staff have used personal e-mail or social media messaging applications to communicate with Sinclair.
The Chairman has repeatedly refused to answer these inquiries, raising questions about whether he is appropriately following Commission rules.
FCC actions that help Sinclair, “when taken in context with reported meetings between the Trump Administration, Sinclair, and Chairman Pai’s ofﬁce, have raised serious concerns about whether Chairman Pai’s actions comply with the FCC’s mandate to be independent,” the Democrats wrote.
We contacted Chairman Pai’s office today, and a spokesperson provided this response:
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.
The Trump campaign “struck a deal with Sinclair Broadcast Group during the campaign to try and secure better media coverage,” Politico reported in a December 2016 story that was mentioned in the Democrats’ letter.
Trump reportedly discussed potential FCC rule changes in a meeting with Sinclair’s executive chairman, and Pai or his staff “have met with Sinclair representatives on numerous occasions,” Pallone and Cummings wrote.
Pallone wrote to Pai in August and received a response that did not include “all of the requested answers and correspondence,” today’s letter said. Pallone sent a followup letter in September but says he never received another reply from Pai. “Your failure to provide the requested correspondence between your office and Sinclair representatives is most troubling,” Pallone’s followup letter told Pai.
Pai said in his response to the August letter that he has “restored” the agency’s independence from the White House and that the commission’s decisions “are being guided by the facts and the law, not by political pressure applied by the White House.” (When Democrat Tom Wheeler was FCC chair, Pai accused him of imposing stricter net neutrality rules because of pressure from President Obama.)
Rule changes help Sinclair expand its reach
The FCC last month eliminated a decades-old rule that required TV and radio stations to maintain studios in the local communities they serve. This move could “make Sinclair’s potential merger more proﬁtable by eliminating many of the costs of maintaining local stations,” Pallone and Cummings contend.
On Thursday this week, the FCC will vote on eliminating other broadcast ownership restrictions, a move that “will clear away virtually all remaining obstacles to Sinclair increasing its reach beyond the Tribune merger proposal,” the Democrats wrote.
Pallone and Cummings asked Hunt to launch an investigation into the following:
- Whether actions taken by the FCC under Chairman Pai’s leadership show a pattern and practice of preferential treatment for Sinclair, and
- Whether a series of interactions between Chairman Pai’s ofﬁce, the Trump campaign and Trump administration, and Sinclair demonstrate inappropriate coordination, including whether use of nongovernmental e-mail and/or social media messaging tools complied with the Federal Records Act and the Freedom of Information Act.
Separately, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently agreed to investigate the FCC’s claims about DDoS attacks that allegedly targeted the commission’s system for accepting public comments on Pai’s plan to roll back net neutrality rules. That investigation was requested by Pallone and Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii).
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