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FCC chief probed over Sinclair Tribune deal

Modal Trigger Ajit Pai. Getty Images

The FCC's Inspector General late a year ago agreed to open an investigation into FCC chairman Ajit Pai's handling of the Sinclair Broadcasting-Tribune merger and related media ownership deregulatory decisions.

As a result, one such lawmaker, House Representative Frank Pallone (D-NJ) - who is a member of the congressional committee that oversees the FCC - wrote to the federal regulator's inspector general in November outlining his concerns and asked him to open a formal investigation.

"I am particularly concerned about reports that chairman [Ajit] Pai may have coordinated with Sinclair to time a series of commission actions to benefit the company", Pallone said in a statement. "The commission should take no action on this mega-merger until the conclusion of the inspector general's investigation".

Sinclair announced its merger with Tribune several weeks later.

Pai has said the review has been by the book, and he has long argued for deregulating broadcasting and that the UHF discount should be looked at in tandem with the 39% ownership cap, including whether an analog discount should replace it, though he has also suggested the UHF discount was an anachronism.

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The consumer group Free Press said that in light of the investigation, Pai should recuse himself from all decisions related to the Sinclair-Tribune deal. Both Sinclair and the FCC have declined to comment on the current investigation but called the original allegations "baseless". At the time there were only three FCC Commissioners and one, Mignon Clyburn, voted against the proposal.

Pai's office declined to comment on the report, but the chairman has denied his deregulatory agenda was meant to benefit any one company. The deal, which would not have been possible without the change, would push the total number of TV stations Sinclair owns to more than 200 nationwide.

Free Press is among several consumer organizations which have complained that FCC approval would enable Sinclair to air "politically biased programming" to more than 70 percent of the USA population.

One is a seemingly obscure decision [PDF] made less than one month into his chairmanship to "rescind in its entirety and effective immediately" internal FCC rules concerning the review of so-called joint sales agreements - JSAs.

An FCC spokesman called the notion of favouritism by Pai "absurd", and noted that the agency had proposed a record fine against Sinclair for violating sponsorship identification rules.

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