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FCC should investigate Sinclair for distorting news, put merger on hold, senators say

CLOSEFCC should investigate Sinclair for distorting news, put merger on hold, senators say

President Trump called Sinclair Broadcasting “superior” after the media giant made anchors at its TV stations across the country say the same script about “false news.” USA TODAY

A dozen Democratic senators are asking the Federal Communications Commission to investigate Sinclair Broadcasting Group for distorting the news.

The FCC should also pause its review of Sinclair’s acquisition of Tribune Media — a merger that could expand the nation’s largest broadcaster from 193 stations to 223 stations covering 72% of U.S. homes  — the senators say, to determine whether the deal is in the public interest.

The senators are the latest to criticize a recent on-air promotional message read by many of Sinclair’s local news anchors warning viewers about “false news” on competing media outlets. The scripted message, aired on dozens of stations in the past few weeks, said many media outlets are publishing “fake stories” and pushing agendas.

“We have strong concerns that Sinclair has violated the public interest obligation inherent in holding broadcast licenses,” said the senators in a letter Wednesday to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “Sinclair may have violated the FCC’s longstanding policy against broadcast licensees deliberately distorting news by staging, slanting, or falsifying information (traditionally known as the news distortion standard),” wrote the senators including Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Sen. Tom Udall, D.-N.M., Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and  Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

The “must-run” video segments not only “undermine the legitimacy of non-Sinclair news outlets,” the senators wrote, but also “harm the freedom of the press guaranteed in the First Amendment by turning local journalists into mouthpieces for a corporate and political agenda.”

The senators also criticized the FCC’s recent move to ease TV ownership rules that would give Sinclair “new tools to use in its quest to centralize its news operation and alter local broadcasting in ways that contravene the public interest,” they wrote.

The FCC should allow for additional public comment on the merger and make the investigation’s findings public, the senators say.

However, Pai, the FCC chairman, signaled his unwillingness to move forward on the request, also citing First Amendment protections. “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,” he said in a letter to Sen. Cantwell acquired by Reason.com and several other outlets. “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.”

After earlier requests from Democrats, the FCC inspector general began an investigation into whether the FCC chairman has acted inappropriately in assisting Sinclair.

Sinclair has defended its usage of “must-run” segments calling them a common industry practice. And has noted that criticism against the broadcaster comes as it attempts to close the Tribune merger. “That means a stronger competitor in the eyes of others in the media,” the company says in an essay about the current controversy on news site MediaVillage.com.

The broadcaster also created an online video, posted on YouTube and on several Sinclair TV sites, The Washington Post reported, suggesting CNN is attacking Sinclair for what the cable news networks has done since 2016: warn viewers about the prevalence of fake news. “Fake News is a problem. Everyone knows it. Calling out Sinclair for calling out ‘Fake News is dishonest and reprehensible,” the video says.

However, The Post‘s Paul Farhi notes in the story that the meaning of the phrase “fake news” after the 2016 election “was quickly taken up by (President) Trump as an insult to wield against mainstream journalists, for anything from quickly corrected errors to solidly reported stories he found unflattering.”

President Trump defended Sinclair on Twitter last week, tweeting that “Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke.”

Liberal media watchdog Media Matters has created an online tool for users to know whether any of their local stations are owned by the conservative-leaning broadcast group.

More: Conservative TV show host out at Sinclair station after David Hogg comment

More: Seriously? Don’t freak out about Sinclair Broadcasting

More: Sinclair defends itself over uproar after local news anchors read anti-‘false news’ screed

Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.

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