Under the purview of its chairman, Ajit Pai, and President Donald Trump, the Federal Communications Commision (FCC) has become less of a regulatory institution and more of a strong-arm influence towards pro-Trump propaganda. Alongside the president’s attacks on the media, Pai’s manipulation of the supposedly independent agency signals the degradation of our media landscape.
In 2012, then-President Barack Obama nominated Pai to the FCC, at the recommendation of Senator Mitch McConnell, to fill a Republican seat on the commission. He was a commissioner until January 2017 when Trump nominated him as the chairman.
At face value, Pai is a well-qualified — and ground-breaking as the first Indian-American — Chairman of the Commission. He has a plethora of experience as a communications lawyer, making him a reasonable choice for the post. In March of 2017, when Trump reappointed him chairman for five more years, scholar of internet economics and Forbes contributor Harold Furchtgott-Roth wrote, “[Pai] knows not just the detail and substance of the law but also how the law was crafted, how the law is administered, and how the law is adjudicated.”
Furchtgott-Roth painted the picture of Pai as a non-partisan person, but that has not been the case thus far. Sinclair Broadcast Group and Tribune Media have been eyeing-up a lucrative merger which would create a certifiable monopoly, reaching 72 percent of the local television market. Congress set a cap of 39 percent of the nationwide audience. Therefore, this merger would be illegal, had it not been for Pai allowing Sinclair and Tribune to utilize an obsolete statute, according to Politico.
How is this partisan? Sinclair forces its nearly 200 stations to show “must-run” conservative, often pro-Trump, segments. According to The New York Times, these must-run segments aligned Hillary Clinton with the party of slavery and called the national news media fake news. In one example, Sinclair higher-ups asked KOMO, a local news station in Seattle, to push back against an editorial from The Seattle Times which critiqued Sinclair. This shows Sinclair’s disinterested approach to journalistic independence.
The New York Times states that same station was instructed to report on a story shown to be a hoax about paid protesters at Trump’s inauguration.
Sinclair is undeniably conservative leaning, despite what its spokespeople say. Sebastian Gorka, a former Trump administration official with direct links to neo-nazis, came on a Sinclair television segment and stated that “black African gun crime against black Africans” is the real issue in terms of gun violence in America; furthermore, he said, “black young men are murdering each other by the bushel” with minimal pushback from the program’s anchors.
There was no mention by the anchors that the vast majority of most crimes are committed by a person of the same race as the victim and that “the rate of white-on-white violent crime (12.0 per 1,000) was about four times higher than black-on-white violent crime (3.1 per 1,000)” according to Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Pai, Sinclair and FCC spokespeople deny “any special favors [to Sinclair] by reviving the loophole” according to Politico.
But, according to a 2016 report from the same outlet, Jared Kushner, son-in-law of Trump, bragged about a “straight coverage” deal Trump’s then-campaign struck with Sinclair in exchange for access. Such does not sound malicious for a regular candidate, but Trump lies perpetually. He has misled the public with demonstrable falsehoods at an unprecedented rate. Allowing him — a man who has had 69 percent of his statements as of November of 2017 rated to some degree as false by Politifact — an unchecked platform is biased in itself.
Sinclair, through its deal with the Trump campaign, put journalistic integrity aside in exchange for a special favor. Now Trump, via his appointee Pai, is returning the favor.
Pai may claim that his decision is motivated by his anti-regulation ideology, but even if that were true, his duty to protect balance in the media landscape should take precedence. The Pew Research Center reports that local broadcast media is the most trusted entity in journalism. But contrary to what many may think, “local” does not mean that the people who live near you are calling the shots. Local news, following the proposed Sinclair-Tribune merger, will refer to a monopoly thousands of miles away.
The Sinclair-Tribune merger will benefit the two companies and Trump and hurt everyone else. It will create a monopoly which will drive up revenue for Sinclair, all the while providing biased takes through a channel most people trust.
On Nov. 16, Pai rolled back regulations that prevent daily newspapers from running a television station and vice versa. These regulations “potentially lead to more newspapers, radio stations and television broadcasters being owned by a handful of companies” according to The Washington Post.
Mignon Clyburn, an FCC commissioner said about the move: “The already consolidated broadcast media market will become even more so, offering little to no discernible benefits to consumers.”
Two congressional Democrats, Representatives Frank Pallone and Elijah Cummings, are calling for an official investigation into Pai’s pro-Sinclair and pro-consolidation positions. This is a move which we all should support. The circumstantial evidence that Pai’s power is being utilized in collusion with the Trump administration to promote him is too much to ignore.
I do not think that it is overstating anything to say that the fate of democracy is at risk. President Trump has had numerous incidents of authoritarian tendencies; controlling the media falls into this category. Call your Senators and Representative to tell them to support Pallone and Cumming’s investigation. At the very least, Pai’s FCC is acting in favor of oligarchies. At the most, it is forming a propaganda arm and laying the groundwork for an authoritarian regime.
Clarification: At 1:59 p.m. on 11/16/2017 The Washington Post reported that FCC repealed regulations on broadcast media mergers. The article has been updated to reflect this change. Previously the repeal was written about as a potential change.