FCC Chairman Says He Stands by Sinclair Decision in Wake of Trump Tweet

Ajit Pai Free Speech

WASHINGTON — FCC Chairman Ajit Pai told lawmakers on Capitol Hill that he stands by the agency’s decision to send the proposed merger of Sinclair Broadcast Group and Tribune Media to an administrative judge, after President Trump tweeted his dismay at the move as “unfair.”

On Tuesday evening, Trump tweeted that it was “so sad and unfair that the FCC wouldn’t approve the Sinclair Broadcast merger with Tribune. This would have been a great and much needed Conservative voice for and of the People. Liberal Fake News NBC and Comcast gets approved, much bigger, but not Sinclair. Disgraceful!”

At an oversight hearing on Wednesday, Pai was asked by Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) whether he agreed with Trump’s tweet. Pai responded, “I stand by our decision.”

Last week, Pai and other commissioners voted to send the proposed merger to an administrative law judge, a move that will add at least months of delay to the transaction’s regulatory process and could end up killing the deal altogether. The FCC claims that Sinclair may have misrepresented facts in merger documents and may have engaged in a “lack of candor,” and Pai said that he had “serious concerns” about aspects of the transaction.

Until the FCC’s recent move, Democrats have been critical of Pai’s moves to relax certain media ownership rules and said that they raised questions of whether they showed favoritism to companies with close connections to Trump.

The tone changed somewhat at Wednesday’s hearing before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee.

Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) said in his opening statement that “while the commission rightfully acknowledged that Sinclair’s proposed merger and related divestitures may violate the law, the rollback of the media ownership rules opens the door for the next Sinclair.”

Pai declined to give many further details on the FCC’s decision, citing the move of the proceedings to the administrative judge. After Pallone asked Pai whether the FCC considers a media outlet’s conservative or liberal viewpoint in assessing mergers, Pai referred to statements he gave at his confirmation hearing in 2011.

“For every transaction that is before me, I will look at the facts. I apply the law, and I will make the judgment if it is in the public interest,” he said. Pallone also asked whether Pai would commit to ensuring that the administrative judge’s review would be “insulated from the president.” Pai said that his “understanding is that [the merger] is now in the purview” of the judge.

Pai declined to say whether the FCC would be open to investigating Sinclair for its representations in other FCC proceedings. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said “we should be open to investigation of other contexts as well.”

Sinclair has steadfastly denied that is misrepresented facts in its merger documents.

Trump has previously expressed support for other decisions made in merger reviews. He publicly backed the decision by the Department of Justice to try to block AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner, the parent company of CNN. The Justice Department recently appealed a judge’s opinion siding with AT&T, allowing the merger to close.

Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler wrote in a blog for the Brookings Institution on Wednesday that Trump’s tweet now raises the issue of the integrity of the proceedings before the administrative judge.

“The tweet would seem to signal to Sinclair not to withdraw the transaction (a typical reaction to a designation for a hearing),” Wheeler wrote. “The Trump tweet not only makes the Commission’s job adjudicating the matter even more complicated; the President’s inappropriate, out-of-channels involvement possibly taints the whole proceeding.” The judge will look at whether Sinclair’s proposed divestitures of three stations are actually “sham” transactions to comply with media ownership rules, and whether the merger is in the public interest.

Wheeler wrote that there were issues of Sinclair’s overall qualifications to hold broadcast licenses.

“The Trump FCC will ultimately decide whether the much-ballyhooed decision to send the transaction to a hearing is anything more than a smokescreen designed to focus attention on three specific license transfers while the remaining 39 stations sail through to make the largest broadcaster even bigger,” he wrote. “The recent Trump tweet would seem to support such approval.”

“The only thing that I find disgraceful is that the president is still trying to undermine the integrity of dedicated journalists while blatantly trying to enrich his friends and amplify his message at the expense of local news across the country.”