Controversy over a proposed $4bn merger of Sinclair Broadcasting and Tribune Media in the US has blown up again – after a commissioner on America's media watchdog, the FCC, blasted President Trump's public backing of the deal.
"This is not normal," FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel told CNN on Sunday in response to Trump's tweet that it was "sad and unfair" that the federal regulator didn't give the mega-merger a green light and instead chose to have it reviewed by an administrative court.
"The FCC is an independent agency," said Rosenworcel. "We need to make sure the facts guide us – and the law."
Rosenworcel went further and alluded to the peculiar partisan whirlwind around the deal that has led to the FCC's own chairman Ajit Pai being probed by the FCC inspector general for a series of unusual decisions that cleared the way for a Sinclair-Tribune merger.
Sinclair, which owns a large number of TV and radio stations in America, broadcasts coordinated propaganda in favor of the Trump administration. Tribune Media, meanwhile, owns a bunch of telly stations and media organizations.
"It really shouldn't be a part of our consideration whether or not the news outlet at issue has flattered this administration or earned the president's favor," Rosenworcel said.
That was in part in response to the second part of Trump's tweet which read: "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!"
President Trump has made a habit of weighing in on every issue he has an opinion on – something that has frequently caused dismay in Washington DC.
Fair and balanced
The Sinclair deal is especially fraught due to the controversial inclusion of the aforementioned "must run" segments that the media organization's headquarters has obliged its stations to run, almost all of which take a partisan and pro-Trump angle, in contrast to the organization's largely objective reporting.
Last week, FCC boss Ajit Pai chose not to approve the merger, and send it instead to an independent review body – a decision that most viewed as a sign that Pai feared the political blowback that would result from approval.
His own commissioner – Rosenworcel – has repeatedly, and publicly, asked for an investigation into the deal, and flagged decisions made by her own agency as suspicious. "Every element of our media policy is custom-built for the business plan of Sinclair Broadcasting," she noted, arguing that Pai and the two Republican FCC Commissioners – Michael O'Rielly and Brendan Carr – were "burning down the values of media policy in this agency in order to service this company."
Pai has been behind a series of unusual FCC decisions since he took over as chairman at the start of 2017, many of which have benefitted Sinclair. Most peculiar was a decision to reintroduce a rule relaxing the limit on the number of TV stations one can own – the so-called "UHF discount" – that had been discarded as out-of-date years earlier thanks to digital technology.
One FCC Commissioner was baffled by its reintroduction, noting that the rule "has no place in a post-digital transition era" and was "divorced from the technical realities of broadcast television in the digital age." The decision to reintroduce the rule was challenged in court, with the challenge dismissed last week.
One month later, Sinclair announced it would pay $3.9bn for rival Tribune Media and its 42 television stations dotted across the US, adding to its 173 existing stations. The UHF discount rule, by relaxing outlet ownership limits, made that merger technically possible.
Things that made you go hmmmmm
There were other odd decisions, too.
A seemingly obscure change made less than one month into Pai's chairmanship deleted internal FCC rules concerning the review of so-called joint sales agreements (JSAs). The rules had been specifically introduced years earlier in response to Sinclair abusing them to bypass rules over market control.
And Pai also pushed through the authorization of so-called "Next Gen TV" using the ATSC 3.0 standard – something some of his fellow commissioners felt was unnecessarily soon. Rosenworcel used her first speech as a returning official to the FCC to slam the decision, complaining the watchdog was "about to rush this standard to market without understanding the consequences for consumers."
One of the biggest advocates for ATSC 3.0 has been Sinclair Broadcasting. It holds several key patents related to the standard and stands to make billions of dollars from technology.
Tied in with all that are suspicions of a quid pro quo deal between FCC chairman Ajit Pai and Sinclair CEO David Smith. Pai met Smith the day before President Trump's inauguration ostensibly over the issue of "the continuing paucity of minority and new entrant broadcast ownership" in TV.
Smith is also a confidante of President Trump, and critics note that soon after a White House meeting between Smith and Trump, the Donald decided to select Pai to the vacant position of FCC chairman. Among Pai's earliest actions where the rule changes that paved the way for the Sinclair merger deal.
The stench around the decision and the merger threatened to descend into a full-blown civil war within the FCC, before Pai finally decided the risk of approving the merger was too great – and pushed it to an administrative court to keep his house in order. But then, of course, the Chaos President intervened. ®