The FCC, chaired by former Verizon attorney Ajit Pai, has come under heavy criticism publicly in the past year for rolling back and modifying numerous rules and regulations regarding media companies. Last week, it was revealed that the FCC Inspector General’s office was also concerned with those actions and that Pai was under investigation. As part of that investigation, the nature of Pai’s relationship with higher-ups at far-right Sinclair Broadcast Group is being scrutinized as the majority of the agency’s moves directly benefit the broadcasting giant. Now, a fellow FCC Commissioner is speaking out against Pai and the state of the FCC as a regulatory agency.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel expressed frustration and disgust with what the agency has morphed into under the eye of the Trump administration, especially as it relates to the pro-Trump Sinclair Broadcast Group. “All of our media policy decisions have one thing in common: They are all custom built for the business plans of Sinclair Broadcasting,” said Rosenworcel, continuing, “That is stunning, it is striking, and it looks like something’s wrong … we’re burning down the values of media policy in this agency in order to service this company.”
Rosenworcel is one of two Democrats on the five-person panel chaired by Pai and has served in that capacity since her appointment in 2011 by President Obama. In the interview she outlined six key votes that directly led to the molding of the agency’s policy to fit Sinclair’s aspirations. The modification of ownership caps and the changes made to media ownership rules have been featured heavily in previous reporting on Sinclair-related FCC practices, but the reinstatement of the Ultra High Frequency discount, being allowed to host its studios outside of its licensed markets and the softening of merger advice did much to clear a path for Sinclair to push its nationwide presence to unprecedented level.
Even more insidious revolves around the move to a new transmission standard, ATSC 3.0. Painted as the future of TV, this new standard will allow for more interactivity in viewing experiences but will also force the purchase of supported televisions in the coming years. Consumers have experienced similar transition frustrations before, but what concerns Rosenworcel more is that SInclair owns some of “the most essential patents” for the format, allowing them to potentially make billions of dollars based off of the FCC’s decision to move to the new standard. Every vote went along party lines.
Pai’s actions look especially suspicious after it was revealed last summer that he and his aides had extensive communication with Sinclair officials in addition to meetings with them. Pai continued to fuel critics last week by making an appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a rare move by a chair of a regulatory committee, where he received a “Courage Under Fire” award named in honor of Charlton Heston from the National Rifle Association for the repeal of Obama-era net neutrality regulations. The acceptance of the NRA’s honor was criticized as a major ethics violation. Also, the physical award Pai received was a musket. The action couldn’t be more tone-deaf and troll-like given the recent rise in anti-NRA sentiment spearheaded by the survivors of the Parkland, FL school shooting..
While the investigation continues, public sentiment toward Pai continues to worsen, and now many state governments and members of Congress are doing what they can to impede the unpopular policies coming out of the FCC. Regardless of political leanings, consolidation in broadcasting goes against everything the agency was established to police, and the new regulations threaten to reshape the FCC as a whole. “Broadcasting is a public trust … in exchange for being given a license to use our airwaves, you have a duty,” said Rosenworcel.