Sinclair owns 193 stations in 89 markets.
In an April 11 letter, Democrat senators, joined by Sen. Sanders (I-Vt.) asked Pai to investigate rescinding Sinclair’s broadcast license and stop a proposed merger based on their view that government has the power and duty to determine if news broadcasts stage, falsify or slant news. If they do, government should suspend their ability to broadcast. Dems argued that, in order to have freedom of the press, the government must suspend freedom of the press for those whom government determines offer slanted or false reporting.
The senators letter to FCC Chairman Pai read in part:
Dear Chairman Pai:
We write to express our grave concerns regarding Sinclair Broadcasting Group’s (Sinclair) conduct. This conduct affects its fitness to hold its existing broadcast licenses ….
[W]e have strong concerns that Sinclair has violated the public interest obligation inherent in holding broadcast licenses… [by] deliberately distorting news by staging, slanting, or falsifying information…. news outlets report that Sinclair has been forcing local news anchors to read Sinclair-mandated scripts….
As strong defenders of the First Amendment, guarantees of free speech and freedom of the press … We call on the FCC to investigate whether Sinclair’s production of distorted news reports fails the public interest test.
… Furthermore, must-run dictates from Sinclair harm the freedom of the press guaranteed in the First Amendment by turning local journalists into mouthpieces for a corporate and political agenda….
President Trump has publicly praised Sinclair while attacking every other media outlet that publishes stories he views as critical…
We are concerned that Sinclair is engaged in a systematic news distortion operation that seeks to undermine freedom of the press and the robust localism and diversity of viewpoint that is the foundation of our national broadcasting laws.
Because of … Sinclair’s misconduct … we believe it is appropriate to pause the pending Sinclair-Tribune merger review …
We are concerned that if the Sinclair-Tribune merger continues … Sinclair’s practices of news distortion will proliferate ….
This investigation should, at a minimum, examine whether the scripting of local news programs is tantamount to news distortion.
… An affirmative finding [of the investigation] could disqualify Sinclair from holding its existing licenses and should disqualify it from acquiring additional broadcast licenses….
Pai responding, declined to investigate Sinclair.
Dear Senator [Maria] Cantwell[, D-Wash.]:
Thank you for your letter requesting that the Commission investigate a broadcaster based on the content of its news coverage and promotion of that coverage. In light of my commitment to protecting the First Amendment and freedom of the press, I must respectfully decline.
A free media is vital to our democracy. That is why during my time at the Commission I have consistently opposed any effort to infringe upon the freedom of the press and have fought to eliminate regulations that impede the gathering and dissemination of news. Most relevant here, I have repeatedly made clear that the FCC does not have the authority to revoke a license of a broadcast station based on the content of a particular newscast.
I understand that you disliked or disagreed with the content of particular broadcasts, but I can hardly think of an action more chilling of free speech than the federal government investigating a broadcast station because of disagreement with its news coverage or promotion of that coverage. Instead, I agree with Senator [Ed] Markey [D-Mass.] that ‘[a]ny insinuation that elected officials could use the levers of government to control or sensor [sic] the news media would represent a startling degradation of the freedom of the press.’ I also take this opportunity to reaffirm the commitment I made to several members of the Senate Commerce Committee last year that the Commission under my leadership would ‘not act in a manner that violates the First Amendment and stifles or penalizes free speech by electronic media, directly or indirectly.’
Thank you for your interest, and let me know if I can be of further assistance.
Ajit V. Pai
The following senators signed the letter requesting an FCC investigation of Sinclair:
- Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.)
- Tom Udall (D-NM)
- Patty Murray (D-Wash.)
- Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)
- Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)
- Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.)
- Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)
- Tina Smith (D-Minn.)
- Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.)
- Jeffrey A. Merkley (D-Ore.)
- Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.)
- Cory A. Booker (D-NJ)
A Sinclair-Tribune merger, if approved, would mean the company would have 223 TV stations serving 108 markets (including 39 of the top 50), covering 72% of United States households.