The willful, secretive, and highly partisan Chairman of the powerful Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Ajit Pai, is under investigation by his agency’s nonpartisan Inspector General over whether he exerted improper influence to push a change in station ownership rules that greatly benefits the ultra-conservative Sinclar Broadcasting Company, sources tell The New York Times.
The longtime rule limited the number of TV and radio stations any one company can own in a city and nationally in order to promote independence and diversity while stopping monopolization of the domestic television market.
Last April, Pai led the Republican majority on the five-member panel to vote to eliminate the old restrictions and open the way to a huge increase in the number of stations one company can own or control.
Shortly after, Sinclair made a $3.9 billion deal to acquire Tribune Broadcasting, which would give the openly conservative company a foothold in the nation’s largest media markets, including New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, for the first time.
Sinclair chief executive officer Chris Ripley said the acquisition would not have been possible without the FCC rule change, which he called a “landmark” development for the industry.
After the merger, Sinclair would become the largest TV broadcaster in the U.S. with outlets in seven of 10 American homes, reaching about 72 percent of all viewers.
Under the old rules, which existed for four decades, no one company could own stations reaching more than 39 percent of U.S. television homes.
Late last year, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), along with two other congressional aides, revealed that the FCC had opened an investigation, according to the New York Times, “into whether Mr. Pai and his aides had improperly pushed for the rule changes and whether they had timed them to benefit Sinclair.”
For months I have been trying to get to the bottom of the allegations about Chairman Pai’s relationship with Sinclair Broadcasting. https://t.co/JGmRQp4VoN
— Rep. Frank Pallone (@FrankPallone) February 15, 2018
The Sinclair-Tribune combination is being fought by public interest groups as well as most Democrats who argue it would reduce the number of voices in media and diminish the coverage of local news.
A New York Times investigation published last August revealed Pai and his staff members had met with Sinclair executives several times.
One meeting, with Sinclair’s chairman, took place days before Pai was appointed by President Trump to be the new head of the FCC.
Trump’s position on this is also suspect. In March, The New York Post reported President Trump had met with Sinclair’s Executive Chairman David Smith and discussed FCC rules.
During the 2016 presidential campaign and since he became president, Trump has enjoyed very favorable coverage from Sinclair both in editorials and news coverage.
While the Trump administration is blocking the acquisition of Time Warner by AT&T, which is much less of a competitive problem than Sinclair-Tribune poses, both Trump’s Justice Department and the FCC are expected to approve the Sinclair deal.
Time Warner owns CNN, which Trump has frequently criticized for its coverage of him and his administration, while Sinclair employs on-air columnist who out-do even Fox News’ gushing over the president.
Sinclair’s top lobbyist – who has pushed hard for the new rule changes – formerly worked at the FCC, and is said to frequently communicate with his former agency colleagues.
“Language the lobbyist used about loosening rules has tracked closely to analysis and language used by Mr. Pai in speeches favoring such changes,” reports The NY Times.
Even having an investigation could impact the closing of the Sinclair-Tribune deal.
“An investigation could cast a cloud over the whole process,” said Andrew Schwartzman, a senior fellow at Georgetown Law’s Institute for Public Representation. “For the review, knowledge of an investigation could generate caution and even delay completion of the deal.”
Even without the Sinclair-Tribune deal, a lot of the independence that local TV stations once enjoyed has evaporated as big companies like CBS, NBC, Disney, and Nexstar and Tegna el have gobbled up more and more stations, both to own and to operate under special agreements where they program and sell ads for multiple stations in one market.
Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fl) said in April that these changes “pave the way for massive broadcast conglomerates to increasingly provide local viewers with nationalized cookie-cutter news and corporate propaganda that’s produced elsewhere.”
What the FCC has been doing is like throwing kerosene on the fire.
Mignon Clyburn, a Democratic FCC Commissioner, said in April when rules were repealed that blocked cross-ownership of newspapers and TV stations in the same market that “This is really about helping large media companies grow even bigger.”
She added that Republicans were “more intent on granting the industry’s holiday wish list early rather than looking out for the public interest.”
Under Trump, big business, big money and the super rich have been given the driver’s seat for our economy and for much of our culture. Pai is an agent of that change and for those who value independent local voices, it is a mounting disaster.