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….