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FCC proposes record $13.4 million fine on Sinclair

FCC proposes record $13.4 million fine on Sinclair
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The Federal Communications Commission has proposed to fine the Sinclair Broadcast Group $13.4 million for airing sponsored programming without disclosing its funders — the largest such fine the agency has ever issued.

The proposed fine comes more than a year after an anonymous tipster told the FCC that Sinclair-owned stations had been airing segments about the Huntsman Cancer Institute without disclosing that the group had been paying for the programming.

The cancer research center was founded by Jon Huntsman Sr., a billionaire businessman and the father of U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman Jr.

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The FCC found that the Huntsman Cancer Foundation, which funds the cancer center, had paid Sinclair to produce and distribute segments promoting the research center's work that was "made to look like independently generated news coverage."

In a statement, Sinclair said the fine was unreasonable and that it plans to contest it.

"Sinclair proudly supports the Cancer Foundation and its educational mission," the statement said. "Any absence of sponsorship identification in these public service segments was unintended and a result of simple human error."

The proposed fine is the largest the FCC has ever put forward for violations of its sponsorship identification rules.

The fine comes as Sinclair is awaiting FCC approval of its $3.9 billion takeover of Tribune Media, a deal that would give the resulting company access to about 70 percent of the nation's television audience.

Democrats have opposed the deal and have accused Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai of helping push the merger through by clearing out regulatory roadblocks.

The two Democratic FCC commissioners, who suggested Sinclair be fined more than $82 million, on Thursday voted against the proposal, saying it doesn't go far enough.

Pai responded by saying in a statement that there was no basis for a fine of that scale.

One of the Democrats, Mignon Clyburn, called Pai's proposal a "slap on the wrist."

"Simply put, the ‘punishment does not fit the crime’ against a company that grossed more than $2.7 billion in revenue last year," Clyburn said in a statement. "What we are talking about is an egregious violation of the Commission’s rules by a company that knows better."

Reuters reported last week the FCC was preparing to issue the fine.

This report was updated at 2:24 p.m.