Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai said he stands by his agency’s decision to send Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc.’s acquisition of Tribune Media Co. to an administration hearing, even though President Donald Trump slammed the move as “sad and unfair.”
Pai, a Republican who was appointed chairman of the FCC by Trump, had questioned the legality of the $3.9 billion deal, which would have involved spinning off TV stations in order to meet ownership limits. The commission then voted unanimously to send the issue to an administrative hearing judge, something that can delay or even kill a deal.
It drew an angry response from Trump. “Liberal Fake News NBC and Comcast gets approved, much bigger, but not Sinclair,” Trump said in a tweet Tuesday night. “Disgraceful!”
During a House oversight hearing Wednesday, the commissioners were asked whether they agreed with the president’s tweet that the FCC decision was a disgrace.
Pai said “I stand by our decision” and said the agency has rules to ensure a “consistent and thorough review” would occur without interference from the president or anyone else.
The Maryland-based Sinclair is a politically conservative broadcaster and seen as friendly to the president. Trump has previously praised the company, saying it’s superior to AT&T Inc.’s CNN and Comcast Corp.’s NBC.
“This would have been a great and much needed Conservative voice for and of the People,” Trump said, adding that Comcast Corp. was allowed to acquire NBC.
Pai said the agency doesn’t base its decisions on the ideology of the parties.
“For every transaction we will look at the facts and apply the law,” Pai said. “Not any more, not any less.”
Last year, Pai rebuffed Trump’s call for the revocation of licenses to television stations who air reports the president didn’t like, saying the FCC lacked the authority do do that. “I believe in the First Amendment,” Pai said at an event in Washington.
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, the only Democrat on the four-member FCC, told the lawmakers that she disagreed with Trump’s tweet. She also said there are “serious issues of character” regarding Sinclair and whether it was honest in describing station sales that should be addressed in the hearing.
Tribune last week said it was “assessing all of our option” regarding the Sinclair merger in light of the FCC order for a hearing that the Chicago-based broadcaster termed “troubling.”
The deal, if it goes through, would have an impact in Indianapolis. Chicago-based Tribune owns Indianapolis-based stations WTTV-Channel 4 and WXIN-TV Channel 59. WTTV is the city's CBS affiliate and WXIN is the local Fox affiliate.
The FCC, using unusually harsh language, questioned Sinclair’s proposals to sell TV stations to meet national ownership limits and suggested the company had “attempted to skirt the commission’s broadcast ownership rules.”
For example, Sinclair proposed to sell Chicago’s WGN-TV at a below market price to an automobile executive with no previous broadcast experience. The agency also questioned ties between Sinclair and a buyer proposed for stations in Dallas and Houston.
Representatives for Sinclair didn’t respond to a request for comment on Trump’s tweet or Pai’s comments.
Earlier Wednesday, Sinclair did get a bit of good news, when an appeals court threw out a challenge to changes in FCC ownership rules that could ease the path for Sinclair if the purchase crosses other hurdles. Pai had pushed for the rule change in what critics said was an unfair boon to Sinclair.