WASHINGTON — A group of 15 Democratic senators are asking the FCC’s inspector general to open an investigation into the “independence and impartiality” of the FCC, calling into a question a series of moves to relax media ownership rules as the agency reviews the proposed merger of Sinclair Broadcast Group with Tribune Media.
The letter was similar to one sent on Tuesday by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.). It was sent to David L. Hunt, the FCC’s inspector general.
“We have strong concerns that the FCC’s ongoing review of the proposed merger of Sinclair Broadcasting and Tribune Media may be tainted by a series of actions and events that raise questions about the independence and impartiality of the FCC,” the senators wrote. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) spearheaded the letter.
They claim that a number of actions “suggest a disturbing pattern of a three-way quid pro quo involving Sinclair, the Trump Administration, and Chairman Ajit Pai.”
Pai has defended the review of the merger as well as his proposed changes to media ownership rules. The FCC on Thursday will vote on a set of changes that will benefit major station groups, including Sinclair. They include the adoption of a rule that will allow media companies to own two of the top four stations in a market, subject to a case-by-case review by the agency.
The merger would create a local broadcast giant, with more than 200 stations reaching 72% of the country. It is currently more than halfway through a review at the FCC.
The senators also object to Pai’s proposal to allow broadcasters to begin the use of a next generation TV standard, which will fuse over-the-air TV with internet capabilities such as targeted advertising. Critics note that Sinclair holds patents over the technology, and the senators contend that the FCC’s move “would allow Sinclair to establish and maintain a monopoly over its patented technology.”
Earlier this week, an FCC spokeswoman said that “any claim that Chairman Pai is modifying the rules now to benefit one particular company is completely baseless.”
“For many years, Chairman Pai has called on the FCC to update its media ownership regulations — one of which dates back to 1975,” the statement reads. “The Chairman is sticking to his long-held views, and given the strong case for modernizing these rules, it’s not surprising that that those who disagree with him would prefer to do whatever they can to distract from the merits of his proposals.”
Cantwell, Udall, and 11 other senators also called for Pai to recuse himself from all Sinclair-Tribune-related business, which conceivably would include the media ownership rules.
“It is imperative you recuse yourself from certain matters in order to protect the public interest, integrity, and independence of the agency’s decision-making process until after the FCC’s inspector general determines whether the facts warrant your permanent recusal,” the senators wrote.
An FCC spokeswoman had no immediate comment.
Gordon Smith, president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters, issued a statement defending Pai.
“The actions proposed by Chairman Pai and supported by the NAB and scores of broadcasters have industry-wide implications with a profound impact that is broader than any one company,” he said. “For decades, the broadcast industry has asked the FCC to modernize its media ownership rules, and NAB itself petitioned the FCC to allow broadcasters to innovate and voluntarily employ a Next Gen TV standard, advocated for the elimination of the main studio rule and urged a holistic approach to the UHF discount.”