Empty television studio

FCC chairman probed for corruption amid controversial media merger

Image credit: Dreamstime

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Ajit Pai is being investigated by the FCC inspector general David L Hunt. The investigation will determine whether Pai and others have become too close to the industry the FCC exists to regulate.

Pai was appointed FCC chairman by Donald Trump in January 2017. He has already attracted considerable controversy due to his rollback of Obama-era net neutrality regulations, originally put in place to ensure that all web content is treated equally. This was in part due to his dismissal of overwhelming evidence of fraud in the public consultation on the issue, whereby millions of fake anti-net neutrality comments were submitted by bots under the names of net-neutrality supporters, the deceased and even Barack Obama himself.

Now, Pai stands accused of advocating a proposed merger between Sinclair Media Group and Tribune Media. The proposed merger, announced in May 2017, would see Sinclair acquire Tribune Media for $3.9bn (£2.8bn). This would put Sinclair-owned media in 72 per cent of US homes.

Sinclair, which owns more stations and provides more coverage than any other operator in the US, provides consistently right-wing coverage, largely through local television affiliates. Sinclair has nurtured close links to the Trump administration, such as through an arrangement with the Trump campaign in 2016 for greater access to Trump in exchange for positive coverage, and by employing Boris Epshteyn – a former senior Trump campaign advisor – as a political analyst.

Its proposed acquisition of Tribune was met with criticism from Democrats, Republicans and advocacy groups, who argued that the merger would give Sinclair – already the largest television operator in the country by several measures – a monopoly on broadcast media.

After the merger was proposed, Craig Aaron, CEO and president of advocacy group Free Press, criticised Sinclair for its closeness to the Trump administration. He drew attention to meetings between Sinclair and Pai (before his appointment as chairman of the FCC) to discuss deregulation of media ownership rules to allow the further expansion of the group.

Sinclair was “actively courting and buttering him up”, Aaron said last year.

Pai has long been criticised for his closeness to industry; before his appointment to the FCC, he served as an attorney for Verizon: a company which could benefit from his rollback of net neutrality regulations. He has joked about being a “[brainwashed] Verizon puppet” and “in collusion” with the corporations he is meant to be regulating.

In November 2017, Ajit Pai successfully led a repeal of longstanding regulations intended to prevent the emergence of media monopolies. These regulations forbade companies owning both a daily newspaper and television station in the same media market, from owning a maximum number of television and radio stations in a single market, and from acquiring other television stations if the result would leave fewer than eight independent stations.

Following the repeal of these regulations, Sinclair was able to discount a number of its television stations from the “formula” used to determine whether it was already too influential to acquire the 42 additional television stations to add to its current total of 173.

Pai said that the regulations punished smaller news organisations attempting to survive in a rapidly changing market, and that the repeal would “[drag the FCC’s] broadcast ownership rules to the digital age”.

According to the New York Times, Pai has been quietly under investigation by the FCC Inspector General – the watchdog intended to root out corruption in the FCC – for some time, although it has only just become public.

The investigation will scrutinise Pai’s close relationship with Sinclair, and will determine whether Pai and other FCC staff abused their positions of authority.

The Free Press group has demanded that until the investigation is complete, FCC staff should take a step back from all issues relating to Sinclair’s acquisition of Tribune and, if found to have acted improperly, should be barred from voting on the matter.

If the result of the investigation determines that Pai has acted improperly, it could have serious implications for other similar upcoming media mergers: that by Disney of 21st Century Fox, and by AT&T of Time Warner.

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