I think we all knew this was coming. Or maybe it was just me? Ajit Pai is being investigated by the FCC’s Inspector General. Pai hasn’t been with the FCC very long, but he has made some destructive and controversial decisions. But his most recent decision to change broadcast TV ownership rules is kind of shady. Essentially the rule changes allow for a potential acquisition by the Sinclair Broadcast Group. This is so huge, and shady that even the FCC inspector general is looking into it.
Sinclair is currently seeking approval for a proposed $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media that would increase its viewership to about 70%. The concern is that this particular media group would get rid of local TV news coverage by moving it into the hands of one all-controlling media giant. Back in April, Pai’s FCC changed the rules that cap how much ownership of local TV markets a single entity can possess. Committees in both the House and Senate called for an investigation any improper contact between Pai and executives of Sinclair.
According to the New York Times, this investigation has been going on for a while now.
“By the end of the year, in a previously undisclosed move, the top internal watchdog for the FCC opened an investigation into whether Mr. Pai and his aides had improperly pushed for the rule changes and whether they had timed them to benefit Sinclair, according to Representative Frank Pallone of New Jersey and two congressional aides.
It was unclear the extent of the inspector general’s investigation or when it might conclude, but the inquiry puts a spotlight on Mr. Pai’s decisions and whether there had been coordination with the company. It may also force him to answer questions that he has so far avoided addressing in public.”
This is a bit brash, isn’t it? I mean, Pai is an intelligent lawyer, couldn’t he have seen this coming a mile away? Or maybe he just doesn’t care. Pai’s relationships with big telecoms and media companies have been the subject of scrutiny since he started the job. In November, the Times published an investigation that found Pai and his aides had numerous contacts with Sinclair leadership, and Pai himself met with the company’s executive chairman a few days before he took on his new role at the FCC.
While it’s never a good idea to put that much control of local media in the hands of a single corporation. But this particular acquisition makes it specifically worrisome. Sinclair has a requirement that stations “must run” packages of pre-recorded content that promotes a conservative agenda. (Did your eyes just roll back into your head also?) Maybe it’s becoming more clear why Pai was hired in the first place? I never give Trump enough credit for his intelligence.
The good news? The FCC inspector general, David L. Hunt, was appointed to his position in 2011 under the Obama administration, so there’s little reason to believe that he would hold any favorable bias toward Trump’s cabinet members. Stay tuned on this from a development perspective.