House Democrats seek probe of FCC chairman's treatment of Sinclair

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two U.S. House Democrats on Monday asked the Federal Communications Commission inspector general to probe whether FCC Chairman Ajit Pai was biased in favor of Sinclair Broadcast Group, which is seeking approval of a $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media Co.

Ajit Pai, Chairman of U.S Federal Communications Commission, delivers his keynote speech at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, February 28, 2017. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

Representatives Frank Pallone and Elijah Cummings cited FCC decisions that benefited Sinclair, the largest U.S. television broadcast group, and a media report last year that the election campaign of President Donald Trump struck a deal with Sinclair for favorable coverage.

“All of these actions – when taken in context with reported meetings between the Trump administration, Sinclair, and Chairman Pai’s office – have raised serious concerns about whether Chairman Pai’s actions comply with the FCC’s mandate to be independent,” the pair wrote.

Advocacy group Free Press said in an FCC filing in August that Sinclair forces its stations to “air pro-Trump propaganda and then seeks favors from the Trump administration.”

A spokeswoman for Pai said the “request appears to be part of many Democrats’ attempt to target one particular company because of its perceived political views ... Any claim that Chairman Pai is modifying the rules now to benefit one particular company is completely baseless.”

Politico, citing unnamed sources, reported in December that Trump’s campaign made a deal with Sinclair to get favorable coverage in exchange for more access to Trump.

Sinclair did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, told a congressional committee last month, “All of our media policy decisions seem to be custom-built for this one company.”

Sinclair announced plans in May to acquire Tribune’s 42 TV stations in 33 markets as well as cable network WGN America, extending its reach to 72 percent of American households.

The FCC is set to vote Thursday on Pai’s plan to eliminate the ban on cross-ownership of a newspaper and TV station in a major market and make it easier for media companies to buy additional TV stations in the same market. Approval would make it easier for Sinclair to acquire more TV stations.

The FCC will also vote Thursday on Pai’s proposal to allow broadcasters to use new technology to improve picture quality and allow better reception on mobile phones, but it could force consumers to eventually buy new equipment.

Sinclair holds some patents for the TV technology and Rosenworcel said Sinclair and others could profit.

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Cynthia Osterman