The FCC inspector general is investigating whether agency chair Ajit Pai timed policy changes last year to improperly benefit Sinclair Broadcast Group. The New York Times reported today that inspector general David Hunt accepted a request from Reps. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), who asked Hunt to determine whether the Trump-era FCC’s actions showed “a pattern and practice of preferential treatment” toward Sinclair. Pallone and Cummings, among others, believe Pai’s FCC may have rolled back anti-monopoly rules to pave the way for Sinclair’s acquisition of Tribune Media.
Pallone tells the Times that “for months I have been trying to get to the bottom of the allegations about Chairman Pai’s relationship with Sinclair Broadcasting,” and that he’s “grateful to the FCC’s inspector general” for taking on the investigation. (The agency declined comment to the Times.) In addition to looking at FCC policy, Pallone wants the probe to see whether Pai, the Trump campaign, and Sinclair had “inappropriate coordination” over the deal, including whether they violated transparency rules with private email and social media accounts.
Sinclair Broadcast Group is the largest local TV station operator in the US, and is known for a broadly right-leaning and specifically pro-Trump political bent; it also owns right-wing news site Circa. In May 2017, it announced a previously rumored $3.9 billion merger with Tribune Media, which would put Sinclair-owned stations in 72 percent of US households, dwarfing its competition and massively expanding its reach. In April, the FCC moved to soften a rule that would prevent any broadcaster from reaching more than 39 percent. Pallone also cites other FCC changes that benefit Sinclair, including repealing a rule that made local broadcast stations maintain a physical presence in their coverage area. Pai has maintained that these decisions were under consideration well before the Sinclair merger.
The investigation could affect the terms of Sinclair and Tribune’s deal, which is still pending regulatory approval. The FCC has delayed its review twice, saying in January that it needed more time to evaluate Sinclair’s plans for divesting assets. However, despite criticism, it’s still likely to be approved. The question is what Sinclair will have to give up in the process.