Rosenworcel Calls for Investigation in Wide-Ranging Hearing

It was a wide-ranging FCC Oversight hearing Wednesday, spanning more than three hours and covering everything from President Trump’s tweets to review of Sinclair’s proposed $3.9bln Tribune merger to privacy protections. Commish Jessica Rosenworcel said she believes FCC action “merits investigation,” pointing to a series of media policy decisions that “all seem to serve Sinclair Broadcasting’s business plans—from reinstating the UHF discount to changing the 39% [ownership] rule that was enacted by Congress to possibly foisting on all of our households a new broadcast standard for which they own many, many patents.”

That broadcast standard—ATSC 3.0—is expected to be put on the November Open Meeting’s agenda. FCC chmn Ajit Pai also announced at the meeting that easing media ownership rules will be on next month’s agenda, including the ban on the ownership of a newspaper and broadcast station in the same market. House Commerce Ranking member Frank Pallone (D-NJ) said he found it curious that the hearing is scheduled just one day before Pai is expected to make the proposal public, saying it “enriches a single company above others” and clears any last obstacles to Sinclair’s Tribune purchase.

Wednesday’s House Communications subcmte meeting came after Pallone and subcmte ranking member Mike Doyle (D-PA) requested a hearing so that Pai and other commissioners could publicly disavow President Trump’s remarks over NBC’s broadcast license. However, Pai said he was only going to speak to his own views and would not characterize anyone else’s. Chmn Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) addressed the Democratic leadership’s hearing request at the start, saying it came while the “routine” hearing was in its final planning stages. “I fully expect them to question the Trump tweets and chmn Pai, since we have a very full slate of issues, my hope is you will address that concern so we can focus on the work and responsibilities of the Commission,” she said. Pai began his remarks by immediately addressing the First Amendment, saying his record that it must be at the heart of the agency’s work is clear. Presidential attacks on the press are not new, he said. “President Kennedy targeted the Washington Post and NBC, directly telling one of my predecessors a particular story was outrageous and to ‘do something about it,’” he said. “More recently, some have said the FCC should reject a transaction involving the transfer of FCC broadcast licenses because of editorial judgments. And six members of this very committee, including the ranking member and ranking subcmte member, once demanded that the FCC investigate a broadcaster based solely on the content of a documentary that they didn’t like and that hadn’t even aired. Let me be clear. I stand on the side of the First Amendment.” The last was a reference to the Sinclair “Swift Boat” controversy from 2004.

Rep Anna Eshoo (D-CA) responded: “To bring together President Kennedy with Donald Trump I don’t think is palatable.” Pallone questioned him further, with Pai stating he wouldn’t revoke a broadcast license based on multiple newscasts or launch investigations into companies based on their reporting or have the Commission take acts of retribution based on the content of reporting.

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