Saturday, May 23, 2020

FCC Democrat Commissioners Blast Sinclair Settlement

Democratic FCC commissioners have blasted the agency’s Republican majority for approving a record $48 million fine against Sinclair Broadcast Group that opponents say allows the broadcast giant to avoid tougher scrutiny of its actions, Variety reports.

Earlier this month, the FCC disclosed an agreement with Sinclair that settles three ongoing investigations into its actions and calls for the company to abide by the terms of a 17-page consent decree that was released Friday.

Sinclair critics say that even with the high fine, the settlement lets Sinclair off the hook easy. The company had been in danger of facing challenges to its right to own broadcast licenses, in light of the conduct that prompted the FCC probes. The FCC vote on whether to approve the fine and settlement with Sinclair was 3-2 down party lines.

The FCC’s formal order goes so far as to assert that Sinclair used a “good faith interpretation” of FCC rules in question in the investigation involving Sinclair’s effort to acquire Tribune Media. That finding was a surprise to Sinclair watchers given FCC chairman Ajit Pai’s remarks on May 6 when news of the settlement was first released.

The order further shields Sinclair from the threat of advocates mounting a challenge to the company’s right to control broadcast licenses on the public airwaves because of overall character concerns.

“We find that there is no substantial and material question of fact as to whether a character qualifying issue arises from the applications designated in the (hearing),” the order stated.

Democratic commissioners Geoffrey Starks and Jessica Rosenworcel blasted their commission colleagues for what they described as a closed-door process that did not subject Sinclair to the kind of public scrutiny warranted by its behavior.

Rosenworcel said that the settlement “ignores its rules and bends the facts in order to assist Sinclair Broadcast Group with sweeping its past digressions under the rug.” She was joined in her vote against the settlement with the other Democrat on the five-member commission, Geoffrey Starks.

Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said that the Sinclair fine was “far from the slap on the wrist that critics bemoan,” and defended the agency’s action. He said that the “text is precise that Sinclair acted in good faith in its interpretation of Commission rules and precedent and that there is no character qualification issue arising from the underlying applications.”

Sinclair was under investigation for failing to adequately identify paid programming on its air. It also faced a probe over claims that it violated FCC rules in negotiations of retransmission consent deals with MVPDs and for significant misrepresentations to the commission as Sinclair was trying to secure approval for its $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media. That deal was eventually scuttled by FCC opposition and outrage spurred by Sinclair’s proposal that it would divest some Tribune stations at below market prices to entities with strong ties to the company.

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