WARNING: This message may include us saying nice things about Ajit Pai.
Our jaws are still on the floor, but news broke this morning that the FCC might scuttle the Sinclair-Tribune mega-merger.
FCC Chairman Pai, a.k.a. Sinclair’s man in Washington, announced his intention to designate the proposed merger for an administrative hearing at the agency.
An FCC chairman saying “designate the transaction for a hearing” is like a parent telling their kids that the family pet “went to live on a farm.”
This is the move the FCC makes when it’s going to reject a deal — and usually results in the merger-seeking companies just giving up.
We don’t know if that’s what will happen here — Sinclair could still pursue the hearing or try to restructure the deal — but reports on the FCC’s draft order indicate that the agency believes “Sinclair’s actions here potentially involve deception” and “misconduct.”
This echoes what Free Press has been saying for years about the shell companies Sinclair sets up to expand its empire and evade FCC rules. We’ve also shown over and over again how Sinclair pollutes the public airwaves with right-wing content that’s often racist and Islamophobic. All of this is why we’ve led the charge against this deal at the agency, in the courts, with the press and in the streets.
But honestly, the last ally we expected here was Ajit Pai, who until a few hours ago had aided and abetted Sinclair at every turn.
We can only speculate at this point as to what changed his mind, but there’s unquestionably been a public breakthrough in the past few months. More than 30 million people watched that viral Deadspin video showing all the local Sinclair anchors reading from the same propaganda script — which made the company a household name.
For our part at Free Press, we’ve been a go-to source in the press for what’s wrong with this deal and made extensive filings at the FCC to dismantle Sinclair’s arguments for it. We’ve also sued the agency in federal court about rule changes that benefit Sinclair — and the case on the so-called UHF discount could be decided any day now.
(“I’ve been to a lot of FCC arguments and this one was among the worst I’ve seen for the agency,” Bloomberg’s legal analyst said in April after sitting in the courtroom. “It’s not a sure thing but I would be very surprised if the FCC prevails.”)
That could be why Pai folded his hand here. Or maybe there’s a more obvious reason: People everywhere hate this deal. There’s growing pressure to reject the merger from both the left (due to Sinclair’s noxious, pro-Trump politics) and the right (where outlets like Newsmax worry about an anti-competitive advantage).
When Free Press organized a protest outside Sinclair’s annual shareholders’ meeting last month, a big crowd packed the sidewalk. Just last week, we set up a video billboard outside the FCC showing Sinclair’s horrific must-run commentaries before delivering more than 700,000 petitions against the deal.
This is yet another lesson — in a year full of them — about why it’s worth fighting against long odds and Washington’s conventional wisdom. We can’t yet say why Pai did this, but I’m sure it never would have happened without the relentless public pressure we helped generate.
Since we don’t know what changed Pai’s mind, we’ll just tell him something we never expected to say: Thank you!
And even more thanks go to everyone who’s helped in this years-long fight and made this victory possible. Let’s keep fighting!