FCC declines to punish Sinclair for its ‘must-run’ segments and scripts

It was hard to avoid seeing the video posted last week showing local news stations reciting a “must-run” script about fake news from their parent company, Sinclair broadcasting, in eerie synchrony. It creeped out a dozen Senators so much that they asked the FCC to look into it — and Chairman Ajit Pai has responded, saying that’s not going to happen.

The Senators’ letter, which you can read here, expresses concern that Sinclair is clearly using its power over local news stations to advance a political agenda at a national level:

Sinclair may have violated the FCC’s longstanding policy against broadcast licensees deliberately distorting news by staging, slanting, or falsifying information…Multiple news outlets report that Sinclair has been forcing local news anchors to read Sinclair-mandated scripts warning of the dangers of “one-sided news stories plaguing our country,” over the protests from local news teams.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is responsible for ensuring that broadcast licensees use the public airwaves to serve the public interest. We call on the FCC to investigate whether Sinclair’s production of distorted news reports fails the public interest test.

There’s a clear irony in what amounts to fake news warning viewers of itself, but the concerns of these Senators are more straightforward. Note that they don’t simply dislike the message; the message is only mentioned by the by. The real issue is that if Sinclair is systematically distorting the news that appears on its stations, that should be investigated as a potential violation of its FCC-issued broadcast license.

And as icing on the cake, they bring up the fact that Sinclair ought to be under extra scrutiny since it is in the middle of a merger that would give it unprecedented reach in broadcast, and the FCC is also accused by many of favoring Sinclair in particular with some of its deregulatory policies.

Chairman Pai responded today with a letter essentially answering a straw man version of the problems presented above:

In light of my commitment to protecting the First Amendment and freedom of the press, I must respectfully decline.

I have repeatedly made clear that the FCC does not have the authority to revoke a license of a broadcast station based on the content of a particular newscast.

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 or promotion of that coverage.

Pai completely mischaracterizes the issues brought up by the Senators, and responds as if they had asked him to shut down a local news station because of a report they “disliked or disagreed with.”

In no way does the Senators’ letter reference “a particular newscast” or the “content of particular broadcasts.” The problem is specifically described throughout as the parent company, Sinclair, blatantly forcing its local news broadcasters to air politically slanted segments word for word, some against their will.

Funnily enough, what he pretends the Senators are asking him is what Trump actually did propose — that the FCC revoke the license of “NBC and the Networks” because of “all the Fake News coming out of” them. It took Pai a week to make his inability to do so clear that time, though Commissioner Rosenworcel did so within an hour.