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By Kyle Daly
The top Democrats on House telecom and government oversight panels want an independent probe into Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai’s treatment of conservative broadcast giant Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. as he looks to relax media ownership rules, they said in a Nov. 13 letter.
Pai’s treatment of Sinclair has drawn Democrats’ ire as the broadcaster is poised to nearly double its reach by buying Tribune Media Co., and President Trump squabbles with news networks that air what he perceives as critical coverage of his administration.
The letter is the latest move in an ongoing Democratic push for scrutiny of Sinclair’s alleged sway over FCC actions. The FCC is set to soon conclude its review of the proposed $3.9 billion Sinclair-Tribune deal, as well as vote on media ownership rule changes that could let Sinclair grow yet bigger.
Pai’s efforts and plans that could benefit Sinclair “have raised serious concerns about whether Chairman Pai’s actions comply with the FCC’s mandate to be independent,” Reps. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) wrote in the letter to FCC Inspector General David Hunt.
The lawmakers want Hunt to investigate whether Pai has demonstrated a pattern of preferential treatment toward Sinclair, and whether there’s been inappropriate coordination among Pai’s office, Sinclair, and the Trump campaign or White House.
Pallone is ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Cummings is ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
The lawmakers said they are concerned about Pai’s restoration of a technologically obsolete rule that lets broadcasters count certain stations only halfway toward a cap that limits their national market reach to 39 percent. Restoring the rule cleared a path for Sinclair to buy Tribune.
Among other issues that should be investigated, they said, are Pai’s still-pending review of the proposed merger, and planned Nov. 16 votes to relax most limits on station ownership in a single market and let broadcasters adopt a Sinclair-backed next-generation broadcast standard.
An FCC spokesperson told Bloomberg Law that the agency views the request as an attempt to target Sinclair over its political leanings. Pai’s efforts, like the planned vote on changing media ownership limits, are meant to update FCC rules to reflect market realities and aren’t intended to benefit any one company, the spokesperson said.
A Sinclair spokeswoman declined to comment. Hunt did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Pallone and other Democratic lawmakers in August asked Pai to explain his relationship with Sinclair and disclose whether he’d had any undisclosed contact with the company or the White House regarding actions that could benefit Sinclair.
Pai, in a September response, denied having any inappropriate contact with or about Sinclair. None of his actions as chairman have been influenced by the company’s interests, he said.
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The letter to Pai is available at: http://src.bna.com/ubi
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