During his short tenure as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai has made so many destructive and controversial decisions it’s hard to keep up. However, his decision to change broadcast TV ownership rules, clearing the way for a massive acquisition by the Sinclair Broadcast Group, has always been one of the shadiest. And it was apparently so shady that the FCC’s inspector general has opened an investigation into any wrongdoing.
Sinclair is currently seeking approval for a proposed $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media that would put its stations in seven out of 10 US households. The deal raises concerns that this particular media blob would gut local TV news coverage and place it in the hands of one all-controlling 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, that investigation has actually been underway for some time. From the report:
By the end of the year, in a previously undisclosed move, the top internal watchdog for the F.C.C. 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.
Pai’s relationships with big telecoms and media companies have been the subject of scrutiny since he took over the agency, particularly his relationship with Verizon, for which he worked as a lawyer before joining the federal government. 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.
It’s not a good idea to put so much control of local media into the hands of any single corporation, but Sinclair has been specifically worrisome due to its requirement that stations air “must-run” packages of pre-recorded content that promotes a conservative agenda. Former Trump spokesman Boris Epshtyn became Sinclair’s chief political analyst after leaving the White House. And according to a Politico report, the Trump campaign made a deal with Sinclair in 2016 that exchanged more access to the candidate in return for favorable coverage.
We’ve reached out to the FCC and the inspector general’s office for comment on the newly disclosed investigation, and we’ll update this post when we receive a reply. Following lawmaker’s calls for an investigation in November, a spokesperson for Pai’s office told The New York Times, “For many years, Chairman Pai has called on the F.C.C. to update its media ownership regulations.” They said, “The chairman is sticking to his long-held views, and given the strong case for modernizing these rules, it’s not surprising that those who disagree with him would prefer to do whatever they can to distract from the merits of his proposals.”
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.
Numerous members of the administration are the subject of various investigations at the moment, including the EPA’s Scott Pruitt, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and his staff, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. And of course, many members of the White House including the president himself are subjects of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election meddling and obstruction of justice. Throw in the recent resignation of Staff Secretary Rob Porter, which has set off a firestorm of concern over the 130 political appointees who still haven’t managed to get a security clearance, and it’s quite apparent this administration has some staffing problems.
We have no word on the status of the investigation of Chairman Pai, but in the short term, it could easily complicate the FTC’s review of the Sinclair deal. And wouldn’t that be a shame?
UPDATE: The FCC Inspector General’s office sent this statement: “Our long-standing policy is not to comment on the existence, non-existence or status of an investigation.”