FCC rolls back media regulations in move that critics say benefits Sinclair

FCC rolls back media regulations in move that critics say benefits Sinclair
© Greg Nash

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Thursday voted to roll back restrictions on media ownership, a proposal that critics say is helping to pave the way for a controversial merger and further consolidation in the industry.

The commission’s party-line vote clears the way for the common ownership of newspapers and broadcast stations in the same market. The proposal also eliminates a rule that prohibited television stations in the same market from merging if such a deal would leave less than eight different stations in that market.


The move has incensed critics, who see it as part of Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s efforts to benefit the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which is awaiting approval from the agency for its purchase of Tribune Media. The $3.9 billion deal that would let the combined company access 72 percent of the country’s television audience.

This week, Democratic lawmakers have called for the FCC’s inspector general to investigate whether Pai has been improperly trying to benefit Sinclair. A group of Senate Democrats on Wednesday called on Pai to recuse himself from Thursday’s vote and any other agency matters that affect Sinclair.

A spokesperson for the chairman called the request “absurd” and denied that Pai’s deregulatory agenda is intended to benefit any single company.

Pai argues that the changes are necessary to allow media outlets to diversify and compete for ad revenue that is increasingly being vacuumed up by internet giants like Facebook and Google.

"Our decision is based on the law, the facts in the record and sound economics," he said during a commission meeting on Thursday.

"The media landscape has changed dramatically in the last 42 years, and the idea that a company could dominate a media market by owning a radio station and a newspaper is utter nonsense," he said. 

Democrats and other critics see the move as the latest attempt by Pai to give more power to big media conglomerates.

"These media giants will have degrees of power far beyond the imagination of our local communities," said Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who voted against the proposal.

"Mark my words, today will go down in history as the day when the FCC abdicated its responsibility to uphold the core values of localism, competition and diversity in broadcasting," she added.

Shortly before Sinclair announced its proposed takeover of Tribune in May, the FCC passed another rule that allows media companies to buy up more local television stations. In October, the agency eliminated a requirement for media companies to maintain a local studio in the communities that they operate in.

In a letter to the FCC inspector general on Wednesday, a group of senators led by Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellThere's a lot to like about the Senate privacy bill, if it's not watered down Hillicon Valley: House passes anti-robocall bill | Senators inch forward on privacy legislation | Trump escalates fight over tech tax | Illinois families sue TikTok | Senators get classified briefing on ransomware Senators want FERC to protect critical infrastructure from Huawei threats MORE (D-Wash.) and Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallSenate Democrats ask Pompeo to recuse himself from Ukraine matters Bureau of Land Management staff face relocation or resignation as agency moves west Overnight Energy: EPA watchdog slams agency chief after deputy fails to cooperate in probe | Justices wrestle with reach of Clean Water Act | Bipartisan Senate climate caucus grows MORE (D-N.M.) said the pattern of FCC actions and the chairman's interactions with Sinclair call into question the "independence and impartiality" of the agency.

"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.

- This story was updated at 2:48 p.m.