Tag Archives: Ajit Pai

Sinclair Media Encounters A Roadblock

In late July, the Washington Post ran a story that was tantalizing by virtue of what it omitted.

The paper reported that the FCC had raised substantial questions about Sinclair Broadcasting’s proposed merger with Tribune Media. In prior years, “substantial questions” by the FCC have been enough to derail proposals, and I was particularly surprised because up to this point, Ajit Pai, Trump’s appointee to head the FCC, has conducted himself precisely as one would expect a Trump appointee to behave, which is to say he has been a total tool of big telecom. For example, Pai engineered the repeal of Net Neutrality–despite the fact that his predecessor had strongly supported the policy (as do huge majorities of Americans) and despite the huge number of public comments protesting the move–an “accomplishment” that undoubtedly pleased Verizon, where he had been an executive before moving to the FCC.

Trump, of course, took to Twitter to express his disagreement, tweeting in his usual peevish and childish prose:

Trump said Tuesday that it was “So sad and unfair” that the FCC, an independent agency, did not approve the merger, a $3.9 billion transaction that would create a conservative television giant that originally hoped to reach roughly 70 percent of U.S. households.

In his tweet, the president stressed how the deal would provide a “conservative voice for and of the People,” though politics are not supposed to factor into merger considerations.

“Liberal Fake News NBC and Comcast gets approved, much bigger, but not Sinclair. Disgraceful!” the president tweeted.

Sinclair–dubbed the worst media company you never heard of by John Oliver--is a lesser known clone of Fox News; if it were allowed to become the country’s largest broadcaster, that would vastly increase the influence of its reactionary programming by adding millions of homes to its nationwide network. (Its original proposal had the company reaching 233 stations in 108 markets.)

So far, Pai has been a reliable Trump lackey, consistently siding with big business over the consumers whose interests his agency is charged with protecting.

Pai moved to allow more consolidation among TV stations last year by restoring an FCC accounting method known as the UHF discount. Under the discount, broadcast companies can own more stations before bumping up against a national audience cap limiting their reach to 39 percent of U.S. households. On Wednesday, a federal appeals court dismissed an effort by consumer advocacy groups challenging Pai’s decision.

That court ruling is a victory for Sinclair, even as its deal undergoes legal review. The company’s merger proposal depends on the UHF discount to stay compliant with the FCC’s national audience cap; after factoring in the discount, Sinclair has said, the combined company will reach 38.9 percent of U.S. households.

Some of Pai’s critics, including Democrats in Congress, have highlighted these and other policy moves in questioning the chairman’s relationship with the conservative broadcasting giant.

Sinclair has close ties to the Trump administration. During the campaign, according to Politico, the company made a deal with Trump in which it promised positive media coverage for preferred access. (Reputable journalists they are not.) Boris Epshteyn, who worked for Trump in the White House, is a company executive.

The FCC’s sudden concern about the merger raises two questions, one of which is: why? Has Pai suddenly discovered that the purpose of the FCC is not the empowerment of Big Telecom? Is he less of a pawn than he has heretofore seemed? Is there some history between him and Sinclair that might emerge to suggest a quid pro quo that would smear his reputation if he simply rubber-stamped the proposed merger?

Inquiring minds want to know!

When the “substantial concerns” were first announced, several media outlets asked: will the clear disapproval of the twit in chief cause Pai to back off? That question is now moot; yesterday, Tribune Media called off the merger and announced a lawsuit against Sinclair.

A good result, but a very, very curious chain of events….

Meanwhile, At The FCC….

Unlike many–most?–of Trump’s appointees, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai appears to know what he’s doing and how to do it. And that’s a big problem.

He’s already rolled back what The Street calls a “pillar of U.S. media ownership restrictions.

“Owners of local television stations will be permitted to buy a local radio station or newspaper in the same market after the Federal Communications Commissions on Thursday, Nov. 16, voted to lift the ban on cross-ownership that had stood since 1975. The agency, which has been fast eliminating restrictions long opposed by TV station companies, also eliminated a ban on two TV stations in the same market from entering into joint sales agreements to sell advertising.

The restrictions being lifted were intended to prevent any one political perspective from dominating a given media market. Here in Indianapolis, where right wing Sinclair is proposing purchase that will allow it to dominate the radio market, this new permissiveness is likely to facilitate a market blanketed with Fox-like, right wing propaganda.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican who orchestrated the changes, said the bans and other restrictions were no longer relevant given the advent of online news sources and the shrinking circulations of most local newspapers. The two Democrats on the five-person commission, echoing other critics, countered that Pai understated the importance and impact that local media sources continue to have despite the rise of Facebook Inc. and other social media platforms.

The damage this change will inflict pales, however, in comparison to Pai’s most cherished goal–the elimination of net neutrality rules.

As Time Magazine and a number of other news outlets have reported,

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai on Tuesday followed through on his pledge to repeal 2015 regulations designed to ensure that internet service providers treat all online content and apps equally, setting up a showdown with consumer groups and internet companies who fear the move will stifle competition and innovation.

The current rules, known as net neutrality, impose utility-style regulation on ISPs such as Comcast, AT&T and Verizon to prevent them from favoring their own digital services over those of their rivals.

Pai says he wants the FCC to stop “micromanaging” the Internet. What he calls micromanaging is what we used to call “regulating,” and although it is certainly possible to point to examples of excessive regulation, there was–and is–a reason for establishing “rules of the road.” The reasons for net neutrality rules are especially compelling.

As the Internet Association, a group composed of major internet companies such as Google and Amazon, put it,

“Consumers have little choice in their ISP, and service providers should not be allowed to use this gatekeeper position at the point of connection to discriminate against websites and apps.”

The group is fighting the change. So are many other organizations concerned with consumer rights.

Consumers Union predicted a repeal of net neutrality would allow ISPs to raise their prices and give preferential treatment to certain sites and apps.

“Strong net neutrality rules are vital to consumers’ everyday lives and essential to preserving the internet as we know it today — an open marketplace where websites large and small compete on equal terms and where information and ideas move freely,” said Jonathan Schwantes, the advocacy group’s senior policy counsel.

Two of the FCC’s five voting commissioners signaled they will oppose Pai’s plan.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel derided Pai’s plan as “ridiculous and offensive to the millions of Americans who use the internet every day.”

Commissioner Mignon L. Clyburn skewered Pai’s proposals as “a giveaway to the nation’s largest communications companies, at the expense of consumers and innovation.”

Before being named to the FCC, Pai was an executive at Verizon. I’m sure that’s an irrelevant factoid.(cough, cough).

The last time net neutrality was attacked, John Oliver delivered such an effective argument against the change that the switchboards at the FCC were overwhelmed; his diatribe was said to have prompted some 150,000 calls. Scheduling the vote for the week after Thanksgiving is a rather transparent effort to avoid that sort of public outrage, an effort to change the rule while people are otherwise occupied.

Let’s not allow that strategy to work. I encourage everyone to click through, watch Oliver’s explanation of what’s at stake–and then call the FCC.