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WASHINGTON — In a tweet Monday morning, President Donald Trump praised conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group, which is seeking his administration’s approval of a proposed $3.9-billion merger with Tribune Media.

Free Press, which has asked the FCC to deny the transfer of Tribune broadcast licenses to Sinclair, has called on Trump-appointed Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai to recuse himself from the merger proceeding. The agency’s inspector general’s office is investigating rulings during Pai’s tenure that have helped pave the way for the proposed deal by removing limits on how many stations a company can control in a single city.

If approved, the merger would give Sinclair control of more than 233 local-TV stations reaching 72 percent of the country’s population, far in excess of congressional limits on national broadcast audience reach.

The president’s tweet follows a viral video made by Deadspin showing local Sinclair newscasters in several markets forced to read from a script repeating many of Trump’s talking points about “fake news” coverage, a favorite theme of his administration.

For more than a decade, Free Press has fought Sinclair’s unlawful expansion and its misuse of the public airwaves to push a reactionary agenda. Over the past year, Free Press has raised serious concerns that Chairman Pai was acting deliberately to lift any public-interest safeguards that would prevent Sinclair’s massive merger from being approved. In February, Free Press called on Chairman Pai to recuse himself from all decisions related to the Sinclair Broadcast Group’s proposed takeover of Tribune Media.

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. Free Press and other groups have challenged the FCC's April 2017 decision to reinstate the UHF discount, which allows conglomerates to use an obsolete rule to undercount the stations they own.

In March 2018, Free Press filed a lawsuit, joined by Common Cause, Communications Workers of America and the, United Church of Christ, to overturn the FCC’s December ruling to repeal local media-ownership limits that stood in the way of the deal.

Free Press President and CEO Craig Aaron made the following statement:

“Sinclair has long tried to evade the rules preventing it from using the public airwaves to push its reactionary political agenda to a national TV news audience. It's now found a friend and ally in the Trump administration, and is eager to air pro-Trump propaganda in exchange for policy favors that let Sinclair get even bigger.

“For its part, the FCC seems intent on looking the other way as long as the media merger in question involves a friend of the administration. Never mind that such consolidation undercuts local reporting, forces journalists to read canned propaganda to keep their jobs, and harms communities with coverage that regularly traffics in racist stereotypes and right-wing conspiracy theories.

“This Trump-Sinclair love affair looks like a quid pro quo — and it 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 Trump’s political agenda. That’s why we have asked the FCC and Justice Department to reject this deal. If they don’t, the courts must step in to protect the public airwaves and unplug Trump TV.”

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