FCC chairman Ajit Pai, a Trump appointee, is being investigated by the FCC inspector general for possible collusion with Sinclair Broadcasting, a conservative media group that ran pro-Trump programming during the election.
Shortly after taking office in February, Pai announced he would overturn longstanding FCC rules about how many stations any one company could own. The decision set the stage for Sinclair, the nation's largest TV broadcaster, to buy Tribune Broadcasting Group, adding 42 stations and nearly doubling its reach to 72 percent of American households. (Under regulations established in the '70s, companies were limited to 39 percent. Sinclair currently owns 107 stations covering 38 percent of U.S. homes.)
The investigation concerns whether Pai improperly junked the rules to favor Sinclair, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and two congressional aides told the "New York Times" on Thursday. The probe began in December and the end date is unclear.
Sinclair is known for inserting "must-run" conservative segments into local programming, which clearly favored Trump in the 2016 election. Pai met with Sinclair executives before his appointment as chairman and communicated with them several times after that. He has refused to turn over those communications to Congress.
"For months I have been trying to get to the bottom of the allegations about Chairman Pai's relationship with Sinclair Broadcasting," Pallone told the "Times." "I am grateful to the FCC's inspector general that he has decided to take up this important investigation."
A spokesman for Pai said the accusations were "baseless" and noted that the FCC fined Sinclair for deceptive advertising last December, after the stations aired ads for a cancer institute that were designed to look like news reports during newscasts.
“For many years, Chairman Pai has called on the F.C.C. to update its media ownership regulations,” the FCC spokesman said. “The chairman is sticking to his long-held views, and given the strong case for modernizing these rules, it’s not surprising that those who disagree with him would prefer to do whatever they can to distract from the merits of his proposals.”
Last December, the Washington Post reported that Sinclair "gave a disproportionate amount of neutral or favorable coverage to Trump during the campaign" while airing negative stories on Hillary Clinton. Sinclair has donated heavily to Republican causes and has inserted itself into presidential elections before: In 2004, Sinclair planned to air a documentary critical of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's Vietnam military service. When controversy erupted, the company ultimately ran a news program instead of the documentary on some of its stations.