WASHINGTON—A group of Democratic senators has asked the Inspector General of the FCC to open an investigation on FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s handling of the proposed Sinclair-Tribune merger, raising questions about Pai’s “objectivity and impartiality.” The same group has also asked Pai to recuse himself from voting on media ownership and the Next Gen TV (aka ATSC 3.0) at the commission’s Nov. 16 meeting.
In a letter to David L. Hunt, the group, including Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash), Tom Udall (D-NM), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-Nev.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), claim that Pai has compromised his leadership at the commission regarding broadcast ownership rule changes.
“In particular, 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 said. “This merger would never have been possible without a series of actions to overturn decades-long settled legal precedent undertaken by Chairman Pai since he assumed the helm of the FCC in January.
“Given the seriousness of our concerns, as part of this investigation, we ask that you direct the Chairman to immediately recuse himself from all actions related to the merger on an interim basis until your investigation determines whether a permanent recusal is warrented,” the senators said, “We further ask that you direct the FCC’s staff to immediately cease all actions related to the agency’s consideration of the merger until your investigation is concluded.”
Specifically, the senators point to a series of meetings between Commissioner Pai and other members of the Trump administration and Sinclair since the 2016 election; meetings that discussed FCC rule changes as well as the Next Gen TV standard that were not always made public. The timeline, detailed in the letter, “suggests a disturbing pattern of a three way quid-pro-quo involving Sinclair, the Trump Administration and Ajit Pai. Because of these facts, we are gravely concerned the Chairman Pai may have engaged in a pattern and practice of activity related to the Sinclair-Tribune transaction in a way that imperils the independence and public interest mission of the FCC.”
The senators asked Hunt to investigate whether Pai’s actions towards the Sinclair-Tribune transaction, media ownership policies and the Next Gen TV standard—of which Sinclair holds several patents—were improper or showed any favoritism towards Sinclair or even appeared improper.
In their letter to Pai, the senators told the Chairman that they have requested that the FCC “immediately halt its work on the proposed merger between Sinclair and Tribune Media until the Inspector General completes his investigation.”
In response, the NAB defended 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,” said NAB President Gordon Smith. “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.
"We appreciate that Chairman Pai has looked at facts over politics and consistently supported updates to both radio and TV broadcasting regulations since he first became a Commissioner in 2012.”