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FCC Chairman Defends Review of Sinclair-Tribune Merger in Letter to House Democrats

WASHINGTON — FCC Chairman Ajit Pai defended the review of the proposed merger of Sinclair Broadcast Group with Tribune Media, writing in a letter to House Democrats that he did not discuss any FCC proceedings in two meetings he had with Donald Trump.

Responding to a series of questions about the merger sent by Senate Democrats last month, Pai wrote that his actions since he became chairman “have not been fueled by a desire to help any particular company.”

The FCC is currently reviewing the Sinclair-Tribune merger, which would create a broadcasting giant with 223 TV stations serving 108 markets, including 39 of the top 50, and to cover about 72% of U.S. households. Critics have called into question Sinclair’s links to the Trump administration, as well as Pai’s move last spring to reinstate an FCC provision, called the “UHF discount,” that allows station groups to purchase more stations and still comply with federal ownership caps.

In his letter, Pai wrote that he met with Trump on Jan. 16, when Trump had yet to take office, and again on March 6, but “we did not discuss any pending FCC proceedings.” He characterized the first meeting as “similar to a job interview,” as Trump appointed Pai to the chairman post soon after his inauguration. After the second meeting, Trump nominated Pai for another term.

“We did not discuss any issue pending at the FCC involving Sinclair Broadcast Group even being mentioned at either meeting, and I do not recall the Sinclair Broadcast Group even being mentioned at either meeting,” Pai said. “In terms of other White House officials in the current administration, I do not recall having any discussions with any of them pertaining to the Sinclair Broadcast Group, and I am not aware of anyone in my office having such discussions.”

Pai also wrote that he met with representatives of Sinclair on Nov. 16, when he spoke to a gathering of Sinclair station managers in Baltimore. He said that he made a “brief presentation regarding some of the issues confronting the FCC and then took questions on a variety of topics.” He said that he also had “a brief lunch with some Sinclair executives.” He also outlined other meetings he had with Sinclair executives, including a Jan. 19 meeting in Arlington, Va., in which pending FCC business was discussed. A summary of the meeting was filed in the FCC’s public docket on Jan. 23, he wrote. It showed a discussion of the agency’s restrictions on shared-service agreements, rules that were eased early in February.

The FCC is now on day 75 of a 180-day timeline for the review of the transaction. Last week, the FCC asked Sinclair to respond to a series of questions about the merger, including a more detailed account of how they plan to comply with ownership limits, as well as restrictions on station overlap in the same market.

House Democrats, led by Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, called for Pai to respond to a series of questions in a letter sent to the FCC in August. They cited “multiple FCC actions that have directly benefited the company.”

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