WASHINGTON — Free Press on Thursday called on Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai to recuse himself from all decisions related to the Sinclair Broadcast Group’s proposed takeover of Tribune Media. The demand follows news today that the FCC Inspector General’s office is investigating the appearance of quid pro quo behind agency rulings that have helped pave the way for the proposed merger. Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey has spearheaded efforts in Congress to call for this inevstigation.
A coalition of public-interest groups, including CREDO Action, Daily Kos, Demand Progress, Free Press and MPower Change, have collected more than 400,000 petitions calling on the FCC to block the merger and investigate Chairman Pai’s conduct. Following today’s news, these groups are also calling on Pai to recuse himself from all agency matters involving Sinclair.
Free Press has raised serious concerns that the FCC chairman was acting deliberately and with extreme bias to lift any public-interest safeguards that would prevent the massive merger from being approved. In August 2017, Free Press filed a formal challenge to the proposed deal stating that the transfer of station licenses would give Sinclair a broadcast reach far in excess of congressional and FCC limits on national and local media ownership, and would harm the public interest.
As originally proposed, the deal would add 42 Tribune stations to the Sinclair empire, including stations in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, Denver and several other top-20 markets. Sinclair already owns 173 stations dominating many other major cities, such as Baltimore, Minneapolis, Seattle, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., as well several stations in key electoral states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
If the merger is approved, the conservative broadcaster would be able to air politically biased programming to more than 70 percent of the U.S. population.
Consolidation on this scale is conceivable only following 2017 rule changes by Pai’s FCC. In April, the agency voted to reinstate a technically obsolete loophole called the UHF discount that allows broadcast conglomerates to exceed congressionally mandated national TV-audience coverage limits. Free Press sued to overturn that decision, and oral arguments are scheduled for April in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
This loosening of broadcast-ownership rules came after press reports that Chairman Pai had conducted meetings with Sinclair executives days after the Nov. 8 presidential election, and then again off FCC grounds days before Trump appointed him to chair the FCC. At the same time, Politico reported that Donald Trump’s adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was boasting privately about a deal he had struck with the broadcaster during the campaign to air interviews with Trump un-interrupted by commentary.
Free Press Deputy Director and Senior Counsel Jessica J. González made the following statement:
“Until the inspector general’s investigation is complete, Chairman Pai and any other FCC staff subject to this inquiry should recuse themselves from all dealings related to Sinclair’s proposed takeover of Tribune Media. If the investigation finds that Pai or any other FCC staff did indeed let their own bias and favoritism shape decisions related to the deal, they must not be permitted to vote on this matter and they should be subject to other appropriate ethics-review processes.
“The publicly available evidence suggests a pattern of abuse where Sinclair forces its local stations to air pro-Trump messages in exchange for policy favors from the Trump administration and its FCC chairman. This should be a national scandal. If the deal is allowed to proceed, it would expand the company’s long-standing pattern of evading public-interest obligations and abusing its market power to score political points, spread propaganda and serve a right-wing political agenda.
“The FCC rules against media consolidation were put in place for a reason: to promote localism, diversity and competition via access to the local airwaves. Pai’s actions in support of this enormous merger blatantly violate both the spirit and the letter of this central mandate. Approving this deal would do real harm to low-income families and people of color. It would turn Sinclair into a media colossus with the power to spread xenophobic and racist pro-Trump messages that threaten these communities. Pai must recuse himself and this deal must be rejected.”