Quigley Presses FCC Chairman Ajit Pai About Sinclair-Tribune Merger
WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Representatives Mike Quigley (IL-05), who serves as Ranking Member of the Financial Services & General Government (FSGG) Appropriations Subcommittee, which oversees the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), questioned FCC Chairman Ajit Pai about the proposed Sinclair-Tribune merger. Below are Rep. Quigley’s opening remarks, as prepared for delivery.
Thank you, Chairman Graves for holding this hearing. I’d like to join you in welcoming Chairman Pai to this subcommittee.
The FCC, maybe at one time just another alphabet-soup agency in the sprawling government bureaucracy, has certainly become more of a household name under your leadership, Mr. Pai. To me, that means either you have made a sweeping improvement to the agency you head, or, as I think the evidence strongly indicates, you have taken a series of actions that will impact and disrupt the lives of nearly every American in every walk of life and sector of the economy.
It is no secret that you certainly drew a new-found level of attention to the agency when you led the charge to roll back net neutrality protections. In our 21st-century world, equal access to all online content is the cornerstone of freely moving communication and commerce.
While the Obama-era protections of net neutrality weren’t perfect, your efforts to eliminate these vital safeguards could cause severe harm to consumers, all while stifling innovation and curtailing free expression. This is not to mention that the FCC’s rollout was bungled in ways that seem to clearly violate the American Procedures Act and have already spawned numerous state attorneys general investigations into wrongdoing.
If there were people who weren’t paying attention to the FCC after your actions on net neutrality, things may have changed when the video of dozens of Sinclair news anchors forced to read identical and highly political text went viral online and in the news media.
This of course brings us to the ongoing review of the proposed merger between Sinclair and Tribune Media, which has raised many troubling concerns that have yet to be cleared up.
The FCC, under your leadership, has taken numerous actions that call into question your independence in the matter, and at the very least demonstrate the appearance of preferential treatment for Sinclair—a broadcasting group with close ties to the Trump White House.
A swift series of FCC actions to ease limits on media ownership have cleared almost all restrictions for Sinclair to move forward with its merger proposal. An FCC Commissioner that you serve with has even said, and I quote, "everything the FCC has done is custom-built for the business plan of one company, and that's Sinclair.”
Taken in context with reported meetings between you, your office, White House officials, and Sinclair representatives, in a relatively brief period of time, and these actions reveal a disturbing pattern that jeopardizes the independence of the FCC. So much so that you yourself are now under investigation by the FCC’s Inspector General for improper coordination with Sinclair.
If approved, Sinclair would control enough local TV stations to reach 72% of U.S. households, significantly harming media diversity and lowering consumer choice.
To ease mounting anti-trust concerns, Sinclair just announced that it will divest 23 stations in 18 markets. However, Sinclair stretches the definition of divestiture under its plan to something unrecognizable.
For example, WGN-TV in my home market of Chicago would reportedly be sold to the CEO of a Maryland car dealership, which is owned by the Executive Chairman of Sinclair. Sinclair would have the option to buy back the station at a later date. Under this arrangement, Sinclair would also have control over all business decisions made by WGN without having to claim technical ownership.
While there are stations that currently enter into appropriate joints sales and shared service agreements, this arrangement makes a mockery out of the FCC’s rules.
When you combine a media giant cozy with the President and White House, the rolling back of ownership rules for the benefit of one company, and a sign off on dubious ownership arrangements, you get a recipe for less broadcasting competition, less high quality local content, and less diversity of views.
In closing, I would just like to add, that I’m pleased to have you in front of our committee today, something that we didn’t get the opportunity to do last year. I believe this committee has many questions for you today that have been unanswered during your previous media interviews and public appearances.
And it’s worth noting that most of those past appearances have occurred with conservative media outlets and friendly audiences. I hope that if today’s hearing goes well, you might consider making yourself available to a more diverse range of media outlets going forward.
I look forward to hearing your testimony and discussing these and other issues with you today.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.