FCC Commissioner Says Her Agency Is Now Just A Giant Rubber Stamp For Sinclair Broadcasting

from the ill-communication dept

If you’ve been napping, the Ajit Pai run FCC has been busy gutting decades-old media consolidation rules just to grease the skids for Sinclair’s planned $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune. The deal, if completed, would give Sinclair ownership of 230 broadcast stations, reaching 72% of the public with what’s generally considered facts-optional “news” on a good day. Consumer advocates and media watchdogs have been warning about the negative impact such media consolidation has on competition and local reporting for decades, largely to yawns and eye rubs from many in the tech sector.

The importance of limits on media consolidation have seen renewed attention as the United States tries to get a hold of its previously-ignored disinformation problem(s). Last week Deadspin published a video highlighting how Sinclair forces its reporters to parrot factually-dubious commentary in a relatively creepy fashion, much of it blasting any critical reporting on the Trump administration as “fake news”:

It’s worth noting that opposition to Sinclair’s deal is bipartisan in nature. Democrats oppose the deal because it would extend the reach of a “news” organization that has repeatedly been caught parroting Trump disinformation and misleading its audience. But many Conservatives oppose the merger as well, rightly worried that a larger Sinclair could have a stifling impact on smaller news organizations. And many Sinclair employees say they’re frustrated by the company’s policies as well, but note that noncompete and other contract language makes quitting financially untenable:

“After Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. drew widespread criticism for having anchors read a statement taking aim at the integrity of other U.S. media outlets, many wondered why some of the company?s journalists didn?t just quit.

The short answer is the cost may be too steep. According to copies of two employment contracts reviewed by Bloomberg, some Sinclair employees were subject to a liquidated damages clause for leaving before the term of their agreement was up: one that requires they pay as much as 40 percent of their annual compensation to the company.”

While Deadspin’s video brought some welcome attention to our mindless media consolidation problem and the impact it has on quality local reporting, most of the analysis didn’t even tell the full story. For example, few bothered to point out that FCC boss Ajit Pai is already facing a bipartisan investigation by the FCC’s own Inspector General for potential corruption in his dealings with Sinclair. And many overlooked this recent lamentation by Pai’s fellow Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel on how Pai’s FCC is little more than a glorified rubber stamp for the alternative-fact broadcaster:

“Every element of our media policy is custom-built for the business plan of Sinclair Broadcasting,? says Rosenworcel. ?That is stunning, it is striking, and it looks like something?s wrong. And I?m not the only one to think that. We?re burning down the values of media policy in this agency in order to service this company.”

“Looks like?” Of course none of this is entirely new, and pushing through unpopular megamergers without seriously weighing the negative impact on markets or the public welfare is a time-honored, bipartisan tradition. Much like the man who appointed him, Pai’s just taking existing, long-standing dysfunction, corruption and revolving-door regulation to an entirely new level. And if Pai’s response to the massive net neutrality backlash is any indication, he’s too intellectually and ideologically cocksure to seriously weigh legitimate bipartisan criticism (or the facts) ahead of the Sinclair merger vote later this year.

Being an unelected bureaucrat there’s not much to do about Pai outside of voting out his employer, but hopefully his mindless defense of broadband, media, and even prison phone monopolies at least serves an education function for those with the tendency to ignore a decade of warnings about the downsides of mindless M&A mania.

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Comments on “FCC Commissioner Says Her Agency Is Now Just A Giant Rubber Stamp For Sinclair Broadcasting”

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Ninja (profile) says:

“he’s too intellectually and ideologically cocksure to seriously weigh legitimate bipartisan criticism (or the facts)”

I remember when the new FCC shitshow started and Mike tried to be reasonable saying Pai was generally thoughtful about stuff. Fun times. And I’m not making fun of Mike, he might have his reasons for thinking that way but I would be surprised if he didn’t change his mind completely by now (I know he did by the tone he has been using in the latest articles where Pai’s corruption is discussed).

ShadowNinja (profile) says:

Re: Re:

A lot of employment contracts have blatantly illegal clauses in them. In California for example, virtually any restriction on where you can find employment when you leave your employer is illegal, but companies still put clauses in banning employees from working for a competitor or other company involved in their industry.

Fighting it in court is too expensive is the problem. And a giant asshole corporation like Sinclair has plenty of money to piss away dragging things out as long as possible, and making it as expensive as possible for the ex-employee to make an example of them.

The problem is the courts/law need to crack down a lot harder on companies putting blatantly illegal clauses in their employment contracts. Otherwise it still pays for them to break the law.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

The problem is the courts/law need to crack down a lot harder on companies putting blatantly illegal clauses in their employment contracts

Before the courts can crackdown on these, they have to be brought to the attention of the court, and for an individual to do so can be career suicide, because even if they win the have made themselves unattractive to employers.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Wait … so you quit and get a job with a reputable news outfit and they do not even have to sue you in a court of law – they simply demand you appear in front of some corporate lackeys?

What happens when you tell them to piss off? Do the corporate lackeys have the authority/jurisdiction to issue a warrant or do they have to convince a court to do it?

The way this is going does not look good at all.

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

Partial solution

“And many Sinclair employees say they’re frustrated by the company’s policies as well, but note that noncompete and other contract language makes quitting financially untenable:”

This is nearly a perfect answer to the question: “What is crowdfunding for?”

These media anchors and employees are uniquely suited to banding together, raising a stink about what Sinclair is doing, soliciting financial backing from more than half the country so that they can leave their jobs, tell their collective story, and drain Sinclair of the trusted talent it has sucked up and co-opted.

Why is this not already happening? Why are we instead seeing the Nuremberg defense trotted out WHEN THERE ARE WAYS AROUND IT?

I.T. Guy says:

Re: Partial solution

Mortgages, utility bills, food, children.

I’m not defending them here just saying that some alternatives look better than unemployment.

I know a lot of people will go for the sure thing(working for the devil) rather than the unknown.

Maybe if a popular figure was behind a crowdfunding effort and the funds were already available to them your proposal could get some takers.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Partial solution

I suspect this also explains why good police officers are so willing to cover for the bad apples, even though it costs them their integrity as a good cop. They’d rather continue to be an employed cop.

So, even prevails when employees are coerced by the need for self sustenance. When we start purging the immigrant detention camps, people will unapologetically pack the trains because it’s a living in a scant job market.

Thad (user link) says:

Re: Partial solution

I believe those contract provisions are likely illegal and unenforceable, too — but any Sinclair employee who wants to test that theory is going to need a team of lawyers and several years arguing their case.

I suspect the coverage we’ve seen so far has at least some of them thinking about these sorts of steps. We’ll see what happens.

JoeCool (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Partial solution

What do they do when you defy their arbiters? Call the local cops that reside in their back pockets?

No, they have their lawyers file a lien on your house, your car, and your bank account. YOU then have to fight them in court, at which point their lawyers, who make more per hour than you do in a month, tie things up until you are bankrupt and living on the street.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Partial solution

On another media I read that almost all open spots in journalism is for Sinclair. Some bloak said he was getting a promise of a job he had no skills for just for Sinclair to fill a space…

Sinclair for some reason is getting a lot of funding in a market where nobody else can make a decent living. At some point that is where the interest should go. Messing with employment contracts backfires like sin in that environment.

Ryunosuke (profile) says:

Re: Partial solution

Having such a market saturation is what got Ma Bell in trouble in the 80’s. Unlike Ma Bell, there are rules they could (and probably will go to court over) and that would be the station ownership rule.

From the FCC:

The National TV Ownership rule does not limit the number of TV stations a single entity may own nationwide so long as the station group collectively reaches no more than 39 percent of all U.S. TV households. For the purposes of calculating the "national audience reach," TV stations on UHF channels (14 and above) count less than TV stations operating on VHF channels (13 and below), this is also known as the UHF Discount. The National TV Ownership rule is no longer subject to the FCC’s quadrennial review.

(bolded for context) IIRC Sinclair is quickly approaching TWICE that number.

An entity is permitted to own up to two TV stations in the same Designated Market Area if either:

  • The service areas – known as the digital noise limited service contour – of the stations do not overlap
  • At least one of the stations is not ranked among the top four stations in the DMA (based on audience share), and at least eight independently owned TV stations would remain in the market after the proposed combination
Dave Millerton (profile) says:


To say Sinclair’s local stations produce “facts optional news on a good deal” is categorical undaldulterated nonsense. What a hack! How about this rather than going off some piece of artistically doctored propoganda delivered by a comedian or reading the butthurt diatribes of the quintessential godfather of “fake news” Dan Rather–how about actually watching one hour of a local news broadcast. There try to find, FOR YOURSELF, any hint of political bias left or right within the news reporting. I’m not talking about the 4-5 minutes per week of Boris segments those are lame anyway nobody is moved by those. I’m talking about the news.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Bullshevik

John Oliver’s segment did a good job of finding some clearly biased viewpoints. I will not assign partisanship to these segments, but clear political bias nonetheless can be seen. He highlighted a ‘terrorism watchlist’ segment, a ‘must-run’ segment highlighting “Muslim” “terrorist” activity, which looks like a hatchet job on those weeks without major terrorist attacks, and ignores non-muslim terrorism. And while John Oliver is decidedly Liberal, that does not immediately invalidate his commentary on controversial must-runs.

Dave Millerton (profile) says:

Re: Re: Bullshevik

James- those are blatantly obvious editorial commentary pieces and I’ve see them they’re not even good by the way. Oliver is clearly being disingenuous to conflate that with reporting of local news. Why? Maybe because he does have an agenda, maybe just to illicit laughs. Not like the local weather gal is coming out there and saying “chance of rain likely this weekend thanks to those damn liberals always wanting to plan more trees., now don’t go way after this break breaking news some damn illegal aliens just committed more crimes downtown”. Do you know how ridiculous that sounds?! But like I say just watch some of it and decide for yourself and if you don’t like it just turn the damn channel.

Dave Millerton (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Bullshevik

Anonymous Coward (no pun intended) every media entity since Gutenberg has included editorial content in their deliveries. Some are just disguised better than others. Actually to Sinclair’s credit the Boris’s and Mark Hyman pieces are blatantly obvious. People are being pretty hyperbolic about this really, but that’s the times we live in I suppose.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Bullshevik

Not like that, they don’t! The way it is done is some Soviet era shit.

They are not labeling the sources of the editorials, they are not making it clear what the context of the programming is and they are doing it in prime time hours.

That is anonymizing of editorial content presented out of context. Doing it in prime time shows intend. Using those hack-tools you can recreate most “fake news” with the potential to go viral. Oh, the irony of the deadspin-clip!

Ryunosuke (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Bullshevik

Sir, what you are advocating for, is Yellow Journalism, and possibly a hint of Gonzo Journalism (Different, yet similar). And both are considered … “Ill-advised” by Journalism Ethics and Standards.

It is the commentaries, Bill O’Reilly and Rachel Maddow on the other side, that muddy the waters between Journalism and Commentary.

Now if an unassuming person turns on the local 6 o’clock news, and finds him or herself listening to Boris Epshteyn going off on immigration or how those jihadists are coming for them in an imminent attack… well you can see how that is a problem with Sinclair’s Anchors and Producers.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Optimism

It’s been observed that even though advertising has been stepped up by orders of magnitudes in contrast to the sixties, it works proportionally less. We see much less response from the public for our marketing dollar (even adjusting for inflation and expanded mediums).

When news came about about torture at Abu Graib prison, that was a point that I realized my own regimen of news sources was inadequate. The Bush White House gave small privileges to news agencies that stayed friendly to the White House and would publish news articles consistent with official state positions. And they’d lock out agencies that contradicted the White House too often. Mainstream media agencies quickly learned to toe the line in the press corps.

(Obama would continue this practice, and Trump could have too, if he didn’t antagonize the entire fourth estate and decide that Fox news was the only station he could trust.)

My response at that point was to start looking at internet and foreign sources, and to track where data aligned but the story wasn’t too identical. When stories lept to conclusions to without strong, obvious supporting evidence, I’d look for why they presumed (which is how the tells for bias revealed themselves).

To be fair, many Americans these days don’t have time to be this thorough. But also we have a trend of people simply plugging into news that doesn’t make them too uncomfortable.

Maybe when all the news starts simultaneously saying I laughed, I cried! It was better than Cats! I’m going to see it again and again! that will start creeping the public out enough to tighten up their news digestion hygiene.

Thad (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re: Bullshevik

Not like the local weather gal is coming out there and saying “chance of rain likely this weekend thanks to those damn liberals always wanting to plan more trees., now don’t go way after this break breaking news some damn illegal aliens just committed more crimes downtown”. Do you know how ridiculous that sounds?!

Yes, I do realize how ridiculous that sounds.

I also realize that you’re the person who said it. Not James Burkhardt, not anybody else, just you.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Bullshevik

Actually, the whole point of the deadspin video, and the terroist watchlist is that they are not presented as editorial content, but as part of the news broadcast, as the words of the anchors. Thats the concern with must-runs, they are not clearly labeled as editorial pieces, but as part of local news content. You seem to think that right vs left is the only form of political content – not true. Without associating directly with partisan affliation, political positions can be expressed. A must run profile of recent terrorist actions that includes non-terror activity to pad runtime expresses an anti-muslim sentiment, and fosters distrust of muslim’s within the viewership. And, again without talking about whether the position is partisan, anti-muslim positions have been used as part of and individual candidate’s platform. Discussing fake news, warning about media corporations using their influence to tell a narrative rather than being concerned with facts is a political position, given its echo of the President’s own words. It gets very trippy when you hear media giant Sinclair Broadcasting using its influence to force its anchors to tell the narrative sans evidence about media giants using their influence to tell narratives sans evidence, while at the same time pushing an Islamic Terrorism narrative by discussing a Muslim who stole a pack of gum (*Rhetoric expression, exaggeration for emphasis).

I have watched these segments outside of Last Week Tonight, and they do not make clear distinctions about ‘editorial content’ versus ‘news reporting’. I do not expect National and International news segments to be blatantly editorial by nature. Moreover, we can not assume that these segments wont cause confirmation bias for those with a less critical eye. Just because John Oliver is producing laughs does not mean he has a point.

You don’t need to be using partisan language to be political.

alternatives() says:

If money is speech - start talking.

Look at Sinclair’s history.

1) Swift Boat.
2) Ron Paul’s 2nd to last run.

Both of these events and the way Sinclair was acting created a boycott the advertisers movement.

Take a page from the cryptocoin people and make it your own – Code is contract becomes Code is action.

Start banging out code to listen or even watch Sinclair. The code fingerprints the audio and video of the ads. As advertisers come onto the platform – push their existence on Sinclair to social media and an app for the phone that people can reference to make buying decisions.

The less friction the code offers to re-purpose old tablets, use things like a tricked out RockPro64 (Neural net edition) and make a buying decision the simpler it’ll be to apply the economic smackdown.

Another page from the cryptocoiners is about the government won’t save you and only the market will. Start grinding code to build the tools to track the marketers.

Anonymous Coward says:

Pai was appointed by Obama first

Just statement of facts:

You tried to draw linkage between Pai and Trump: “Much like the man who appointed him, Pai’s just taking existing, long-standing dysfunction, corruption and revolving-door regulation to an entirely new level.”

Truth is, there really isn’t much linkage. Pai was appointed as FCC Commissioner by Obama in 2012. Pai was the senior Republican Commissioner by the time Trump came into office. He seemed the logical Republican choice in January of 2017 when Wheeler left. Chairman are selected from seated Commissioners. Plus, Pai’s appointment as Commissioner was set to expire in four months.

The other options at the time were:

The only other Republican Commissioner – Michael O’Rielly, who is probably not a good choice, either. He’s held pretty much the same stance as Pai. Obama also nominated him as Commissioner, and his appointment won’t expire until the end of 2018.

Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel’s term expired in 2016, and Obama nominated her for reappointment, but that didn’t make it through Congress before Trump took office, and he withdrew her nomination. They he nominated her again even though she has a pretty tough stance in support of net neutrality.

Democrat Mignon Clyburn, a reasonable voice but occasionally at odds with the GOP over Lifeline and other programs, was of the wrong party for likely appointment to Chairman.

So it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that Pai would be chair now if Democrats lost the election, no matter what Republican won, thanks primarily to Obama for his original nomination.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Pai was appointed by Obama first

Whoever controls the future, writes the past. The way you present it is an absolute hatchetjob with the current controllers narrativ of blaming Obama for everything and using that hatred to push through something problematic.

Using them versus us rhetorics is the oldest trick in the book and has historically been the jingoists friend.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Pai was appointed by Obama first

Your comment is also an absolute hatchetjob – blaming the current guys for it.

I think I was pretty straightforward in my post. If a Democrat had won the election, Pai would likely not be chairman. And hopefully we’d have a better chair.

But the problem here is that to solely blame Trump for Pai’s seating is piss-poor logic. Trump would not have been able to appoint Pai from Commissioner to Chairman if Obama had not nominated Pai to the Commissioner position in the first place.

My point is that it took two events to work this way: one being Obama’s nomination (and timing), and the second being an election win to the GOP (not necessarily Trump).

To assign blame to a single individual is sadly lacking in the piercing analysis that you would hope for when perusing this site.

ryuugami says:

Pai was appointed as FCC Commissioner by Obama in 2012.

Pai was chosen by Mitch McConnell and confirmed by Obama, because a Republican FCC commissioner in a Democrat-controlled FCC is not a position worth raising a stink over. If Obama refused to confirm Pai, the accusations of "tyranny" and "dictatorship" would be flying high and fast. Don’t push this shitstain on Obama, there’s plenty of other crap that he is responsible for.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

The establishment of corporate aristocratic monopolies

The whole point of federal antitrust rules against monopolies (particularly on exceptionally useful products and services) was to eliminate the rise of a new ruling aristocracy (whoever controls the spice controls the universe. Also, whoever has unilateral control over food, cars, fuel, power, phones, clean water, construction, etc. also controls the universe.)

John Oliver’s deep dive into mergers, and how a lot of industries are turning into limited oligarchies explained this: we have no say in how United treats its passengers when United is the only airline that flies to where you want to go (and you don’t want to take a train / boat / road trip).

The FCC via Ajit Pai has already made it clear it doesn’t care about the regional monopolies that assure Comcast doesn’t have to modernize (or even adequately maintain) its network throughout much of the US. Pai’s FCC is also not interested in halting the the unification of media channels under a limited oligopoly. So it’s no surprise that a media supremacy would start to mandate consistent, doctrinal messaging among its subdivisions.

The illusion of a fair open market is over. We’re not even trying to be the land of the free anymore.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Ousting Pai

If you’re looking to do it nonviolently, we’ll have to get a president into office that doesn’t like him. I’m pretty sure the Chairman of the FCC serves at the pleasure of the President.

Harder still will be to spoil his earnings from the telecommunications industries whose interests he served while in office. We can expect Pai will get a high-paying cushy job after leaving term, encouraging future FCC chairmen to also dismiss public interests for those of the stakeholders.

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