FCC shuts down request to investigate Sinclair over 'distorted news' claims

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai at NAB 2018
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai talks during the 2018 NAB Show in Las Vegas. (Daniel Frankel/FierceCable)

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said no thanks to a request from 12 U.S. senators that the FCC investigate Sinclair Broadcast over “distorting news” and potentially take away its broadcast licenses.

The lawmakers, lead by U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell, D-WA, and Tom Udall, D-NM, sent the letter to Pai after a video by Deadspin showed several Sinclair broadcast station anchors reading in unison a script provide by Sinclair. The scripted segment accused other media organizations of spreading “fake news.”

The clip has sparked backlash against the broadcast group.

“We have strong concerns that Sinclair has violated the public interest obligation inherent in holding broadcast licenses. Sinclair may have violated the FCC’s longstanding policy against broadcast licensees deliberately distorting news by staging, slanting, or falsifying information (traditionally known as the news distortion standard),” the senators wrote.

In addition to requesting the FCC investigate Sinclair, the group of senators asked that the FCC pause its review of Sinclair’s proposed $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media. Sinclair currently owns 193 U.S. television broadcast stations and acquiring Tribune would give Sinclair 223 TV stations in 108 different media markets, with access to 72% of U.S. households.

Pai sent a letter in response to the senators and denied their request on the grounds that the FCC doesn’t have the authority to revoke licenses because it doesn’t agree with a broadcasters’ views.

“I understand that you disliked or disagreed with the content of particular broadcasts, but I can hardly think of an action more chilling of free speech than the federal government investigating a broadcast station because of disagreement with its news coverage,” Pai wrote. "I also take this opportunity to reaffirm the commitment I made to several members of the Senate Commerce Committee last year that the Commission under my leadership would 'not act in a manner that violates the First Amendment and stifles or penalizes free speech by electronic media, directly or indirectly.'"

Pai’s decision to not honor the senators’ request comes as Sinclair is reportedly facing extra scrutiny at the FCC over its Tribune deal. The apparent issue is Sinclair’s plans to offload Tribune stations in Chicago and New York City to entities with close ties to Sinclair and Executive Chairman David Smith.

RELATED: Sinclair 'sidecar' deals for Tribune's Chicago and NYC stations draw extra FCC scrutiny

WGN-TV in Chicago would be sold for $60 million to a newly formed company headed by Steven Fader, CEO of Atlantic Automotive, a Maryland auto dealership group in which Smith holds a controlling interest.

WPIX-TV would be sold for $15 million to Cunningham Broadcasting, which is owned by the estate of Smith’s mother, Carolyn Smith. Both deals retain Sinclair as the programming and service provider for the stations and include options for Sinclair to buy back the stations.