The largest television station operator in the US is about to get even bigger thanks to a $3.9 billion acquisition, and Democrats are complaining that the Federal Communications Commission is speeding the deal along.
Democrats and consumer advocates have questioned FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s efforts to loosen media ownership rules as the agency reviews the $3.9 billion Sinclair-Tribune merger.
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Sinclair Broadcast is in the midst of buying Tribune Media, a move that would give it unparalleled control over local TV stations across the country. Critics ranging from consumer rights groups to Democrats argue that the combined company would be too influential, with many Americans still getting their news from local stations.
But Sinclair argues that the deal is critical to ensuring the future of free, over-the-air television and that it better positions the company to compete with online giants such as Facebook and Google for advertising. Sinclair didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The FCC on Thursday is set to vote on rules that would make it easier for the deal to get approved.
Democrats allege that things are a little too easy. On Monday, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey and Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland sent a letter to the inspector general of the FCC, David Hunt, seeking an investigation into whether FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has shown preferential treatment to Sinclair. They also aren’t too comfortable with Sinclair’s cozy relationship with President Donald Trump, especially during last year’s presidential campaign.
The letter comes after FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, called for an investigation into the relationship last month.
Pai has denied that he’s trying to help any particular company through these changes.
A spokesman for Pai said that it’s all politics and that the Democrats have long had it out for Sinclair, which has often been characterized as right-leaning.
“Any claim that Chairman Pai is modifying the rules now to benefit one particular company is completely baseless,” the spokesman said.
To help you make sense of what’s been going on, CNET has put together this FAQ.
Who are these companies again?
Sinclair Broadcast is the largest TV broadcasting company, owning 193 television stations and 589 channels in 89 markets.
Tribune Media owns 42 television stations. More importantly, many of those stations serve major cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington DC.
Why are people concerned about this deal?
Sinclair is considered a conservative-leaning company and has routinely pushed its local stations to air so-called “must-run” segments. It would be one thing if these segments were locally produced and reflected that community’s views, but they are centrally produced and distributed to Sinclair’s local stations across the nation.
Former journalists at a Sinclair-owned station in Seattle have complained that the content is often politically biased and poorly produced, according to a New York Times report. “Must-run” segments included things like daily “terrorism alert” reports and a 2016 piece questioning support for Hillary Clinton on the grounds of the Democratic Party’s historic ties to slavery, the Times said. In March, Scott Livingston, Sinclair’s vice president for news, appeared in one of these segments accusing the national news media of publishing “fake news stories.”
Then there’s Sinclair’s ties to the Trump campaign during last year’s election.
What’s the connection with Trump?
According to a December 2016 story in Politico, the Trump camp “struck a deal with Sinclair Broadcast Group during the campaign to try and secure better media coverage.” Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner reportedly told a group of executives that the campaign promised to give Sinclair more access to Trump. In exchange, Sinclair would