Senate Dems want FCC chair's recusal from Sinclair matters

Senate Dems want FCC chair's recusal from Sinclair matters
© Greg Nash

A group of Senate Democrats is calling on Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai to recuse himself from matters related to the Sinclair Broadcast Group and its proposed takeover of Tribune Media.

Democratic Sens. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellSenate votes to extend key funding mechanism for parks White House poised to take action on AI, 5G Overnight Energy: States press Trump on pollution rules | EPA puts climate skeptic on science board | Senate tees up vote on federal lands bill MORE (Wash.) and Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallHillicon Valley: House panel takes on election security | DOJ watchdog eyes employee texts | Senate Dems urge regulators to block T-Mobile, Sprint deal | 'Romance scams' cost victims 3M in 2018 Dems urge regulators to reject T-Mobile, Sprint merger Dems wary of killing off filibuster MORE (N.M.) led a group of senators in sending a letter to Pai on Wednesday saying “it is imperative you recuse yourself from certain matters in order to protect the public interest, integrity and independence of the agency’s decision-making process until after the FCC’s inspector general determines whether the facts warrant your permanent recusal.”

In a separate letter sent to the FCC inspector general, the Democratic senators called for an investigation into Pai’s impartiality.

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Democrats want Pai to recuse himself from a pair of votes on media regulations at an FCC meeting on Thursday. They believe that the proposals up for vote are also intended to benefit Sinclair.

An FCC spokesperson called the bid absurd.

“This request is absurd on its face and nothing more than a last-ditch attempt by those desperate to block innovation in the broadcast industry and modernization of the FCC’s outdated broadcast ownership rules,” according to a statement.

Pai’s critics have noted that he has pushed through a number of deregulatory proposals that appear to clear regulatory obstacles from Sinclair’s proposed expansion.

If the FCC approves Sinclair’s $3.9 billion purchase of Tribune, the combined local television stations will be able to reach more than two-thirds of the country’s television audience. Broadcasters are currently capped at 39 percent.

Earlier this year, the FCC reinstated a rule that would help Sinclair avoid running afoul of the ownership limit by discounting certain stations towards the audience cap.

Sinclair declined to comment.

The chairman has denied that his deregulatory agenda was intended to benefit any one company.

In response to a similar letter from House Democrats this week, an FCC spokesperson said that the Sinclair critics are driven by an opposition to the outlet's conservative editorial stance.

"For many years, Chairman Pai has called on the FCC to update its media ownership regulations — one of which dates back to 1975," the spokesperson said. "The Chairman is sticking to his long-held views, and given the strong case for modernizing these rules, it's not surprising that that those who disagree with him would prefer to do whatever they can to distract from the merits of his proposals.” 

The letter to FCC Inspector General David Hunt includes a timeline that the senators believe shows a pattern of pro-Sinclair behavior from the country's top broadcasting regulator.

"Put simply, this timeline suggests a disturbing pattern of a three way quid-pro-quo involving Sinclair, the Trump Administration, and Ajit Pai,” the letter reads. “Because of these facts, we are gravely concerned that Chairman Pai may have engaged in a pattern and practice of activity related to the Sinclair-Tribune transaction in a way that imperils the independence and public interest mission of the FCC."