Two House Democrats are calling for the FCC’s inspector general to investigate Chairman Ajit Pai over the FCC’s moves to relax media ownership rules and whether they are timed to benefit Sinclair Broadcast Group’s proposed purchase of Tribune Media.
Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.), the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, claim that Pai has refused to respond to queries about the timing of the actions, and whether he or his staff used personal email accounts or messaging services to communicate about Sinclair or with company officials.
The lawmakers cited a number of rules changes, including an FCC vote in April to reinstate the so-called UHF discount. That allows station groups to “discount” the reach of their UHF holdings, providing a way for some companies to comply with national ownership caps.
“All of these actions, when taken in context with reported meetings between the Trump Administration, Sinclair, and Chairman Pai’s office, have raised serious concerns about whether Chairman Pai’s actions comply with the FCC’s mandate to be independent,” Pallone and Cummings wrote in their letter to Inspector General David L. Hunt.
At a recent oversight hearing before the Energy and Commerce Committee, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, called for an investigation.
Pai has previously defended the FCC’s review of the Sinclair-Tribune deal, which is more than halfway through a 180-day timeframe for the agency to scrutinize the transaction. Pai wrote to Senate Democrats in September that his moves “have not been fueled by a desire to help any particular company.”
Pallone and Cummings want Hunt to investigate whether Pai’s moves show a “pattern and practice of preferential treatment for Sinclair,” and whether there was “inappropriate coordination” between Pai’s office, the Trump campaign, and Sinclair.
A spokeswoman for Pai said, “Unfortunately, this request appears to be part of many Democrats’ attempt to target one particular company because of its perceived political views, an effort that dates all the way back to 2004 when Ranking Member Pallone, Ranking Member Cummings, and other Democrats demanded that the FCC investigate Sinclair based solely on the content of a documentary they didn’t like and that hadn’t even aired. Any claim that Chairman Pai is modifying the rules now to benefit one particular company is completely baseless.”
In October, 2004, congressional Democrats called for an investigation of whether Sinclair’s plans to have all of its stations air an anti-John Kerry documentary, “Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal,” two weeks before the election was a proper use of the airwaves and complied with equal time rules.
The FCC on Thursday will vote on a series of proposals to relax media ownership rules, including a provision that would allow broadcast groups to own two of the top four TV stations in a market subject to a “case-by-case” basis of review. Pallone and Cummings wrote that the action “will clear away virtually all remaining obstacles to Sinclair increasing its reach beyond the Tribune merger proposal.”
Pai’s spokeswoman said, “For many years, Chairman Pai has called on the FCC to update its media ownership regulations — one of which dates back to 1975. The Chairman is sticking to his long-held views, and given the strong case for modernizing these rules, it’s not surprising that those who disagree with him would prefer to do whatever they can to distract from the merits of his proposals.”