Business

Watchdog denies FCC chief Ajit Pai played favorites with Sinclair

Bloomberg

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s watchdog has rejected allegations of favoritism by the agency’s chairman toward Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc.

Ajit Pai drew scrutiny in part for his meetings with Sinclair executives after the election of President Donald Trump, who selected Pai to lead the agency. Democrats in November requested a review by Inspector General David Hunt.

Following an investigation, “we found no evidence, nor even the suggestion, of impropriety, unscrupulous behavior, favoritism towards Sinclair,” Hunt concluded in a report released Monday.

“To the contrary, actions taken by Chairman Pai in the rulemakings identified in the letters from Congress are, as he stated in his interview, consistent with his long-held, and publicly espoused, policy beliefs,” Hunt wrote.

He cited in particular Pai’s decision to seek a hearing on the Maryland-based broadcasters’ proposed acquisition of Tribune Media Co., which effectively killed the deal, as evidence of Pai’s objectivity.

“The suggestion that I favored any one company was absurd, and today’s report proves that Capitol Hill Democrats’ politically motivated accusations were entirely baseless,” Pai said in an emailed statement.

Pai’s FCC has acted to benefit broadcasters including Sinclair. The agency loosened restrictions on owning multiple TV stations in a market, and eliminated a requirement for them to keep a local studio. It also reduced scrutiny of how TV stations share services and revenue and is considering further easing broadcast ownership restrictions.

“I have called on the FCC for many years to update its outdated media ownership regulations to match the realities of the modern marketplace,” Pai said in his statement.

Sinclair proposed its failed $3.9 billion bid for Tribune after the FCC restored an obsolete rule that lets companies count just half the audience for some stations, when calculating compliance with a limit on national reach. The deal collapsed after Pai criticized Sinclair’s actions. Tribune withdrew, saying Sinclair had mishandled negotiations with federal officials.