When the Federal Communications Commission was vetting right-wing media conglomerate Sinclair Broadcasting Group’s $3.9 billion proposal to merge with competitor Tribune Media last year, Democrats in the House asked the agency’s inspector general to investigate whether chairman and Donald Trump appointee Ajit Pai was unfairly biased in favor of the deal. The resulting investigation has now cleared Pai, according to Reuters.
Sinclair, which Politico previously reported struck a deal in 2016 with then-candidate Trump’s campaign trading access for more favorable coverage, has recently busied itself making news anchors across the country read off pro-Trump propaganda and forcing stations to run right-wing commentary. If approved, its merger with Tribune would have given it control of the latter’s 42 television stations in 33 markets as well as cable network WGN America, allowing it to reach 72 percent of households with its reactionary message. The deal ultimately proved too scummy for even the GOP-controlled FCC, and fell apart in early August 2018 after regulators said they would likely reject it.
Per Reuters, the inspector general has now cleared Pai of suspicions he timed a decision to adjust the way federal caps on station ownership are calculated to pave the way for Sinclair’s takeover of local news:
According to its report released on Monday, the Office of Inspector General said there was “no evidence, nor even the suggestion, of impropriety, unscrupulous behavior, favoritism toward Sinclair, or lack of impartiality related to the proposed Sinclair-Tribune merger.”
... Pai said in a statement on Monday that he was pleased with the finding, adding that the suggestion that he favored any one company was “absurd.” He could not immediately be reached for comment beyond the statement.
According to Reuters, the report found no evidence that conversations between Pai and a variety of individuals including Trump aide Jared Kushner, White House Counsel Don McGahn, and the president-elect himself were improper. For example, Pai told the inspector general that the call from McGahn came after he had already expressed his concerns about the Sinclair deal and merely entailed updating the White House on the situation, Reuters wrote.
The inspector general also concluded that Pai’s statements on the rule changes were consistent over the years, as well cited a fine the agency imposed on Sinclair and Pai’s recommendation the merger be decided by the courts, the New York Times wrote.
However, as Mother Jones reported, Pai’s answers to the questions seemed incomplete at times, with the chief unable to recollect the content of a conversation with Kushner. Rep. Frank Pallone, one of the Democrats that requested the inquiry, issued a statement expressing his displeasure the matter required the inspector general step in at all. Pallone added that he was “glad the IG confirmed he will conduct an additional forensic examination on communications with the White House,” Mother Jones wrote.
In any case, the Sinclair-Tribune merger is thankfully dead. The FCC went so far as to suggest that the network’s handling of the situation exhibited “potential element of misrepresentation or lack of candor that may suggest granting other, related applications by the same party would not be in the public interest.” So it doesn’t look likely that Sinclair will make good on its nefarious expansion plans anytime soon.
There are still many more storm clouds hanging over Pai’s head, however. Pai recently admitted to members of Congress that he misled them for seven months about the veracity of senior FCC officials’ unsupported claims a cyber attack disrupted its comment system while the agency was preparing to revoke net neutrality rules in 2017. He’s also come under immense criticism for his ties to massive telecoms like Verizon, plans to strip phone and internet subsidies from native Americans, and refusal to recuse himself from an investigation into alleged illegal cell phone tracking by his former legal client Securus. Opposition to Pai and his colleagues’ decision to roll back the net neutrality rules also remains intense, with lawsuits ongoing.