Sinclair Broadcast Group agreed on Wednesday to pay a record $48 million fine to resolve a series of allegations with the Federal Communications Communication.
The FCC announced that the agreement will end three investigations into the broadcaster, including charges that it failed to disclose the sponsor of paid content, and that it misled the FCC during its failed merger with Tribune Media.
In a statement, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai called Sinclair’s conduct “completely unacceptable” and said the fine should serve as a warning to others.
“On the other hand,” he continued, “I disagree with those who, for transparently political reasons, demand that we revoke Sinclair’s licenses. While they don’t like what they perceive to be the broadcaster’s viewpoints, the First Amendment still applies around here.”
Sinclair’s CEO, Chris Ripley, said in a statement on Wednesday that the company was “pleased with the resolution announced today by the FCC and to be moving forward.”
“We thank the FCC staff for their diligence in reaching this resolution,” Ripley added. “Sinclair is committed to continue to interact constructively with all of its regulators to ensure full compliance with applicable laws, rules and regulations.”
Sinclair sparked the ire of the FCC with its plan for station divestitures that would be necessary to bring the company into compliance with the commission’s station ownership limits.
Sinclair raised eyebrows among broadcasters with a plan to sell two of Tribune’s biggest stations — WPIX-TV New York and WGN Chicago — for below-market prices to entities with ties to Sinclair and the Smith family that controls the Baltimore-based broadcaster.
Free Press, an advocacy group that had called for Sinclair’s licenses to be stripped, applauded the fine, but said the penalty should have been much steeper.
“Sinclair has abused its control of local-TV stations from coast to coast, inserting right-wing propaganda into local newscasts and turning local journalists into puppets for its political agenda,” said Free Press co-CEO Craig Aaron.
The FCC also found that Sinclair had aired paid programming 1,700 times without disclosing the identity of the sponsor. The commission proposed a $13.4 million fine for that conduct in December 2017.
Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic appointee, argued at the time that the fine was too small, and that the commission was extending “unreasonable and suspicious favor to a company with a clear record of difficulty complying with the law.”
The third investigation involved charges that Sinclair had failed to conduct good faith negotiations for retransmission consent agreements.
Cynthia Littleton contributed to this story.