FCC Should Do More Than Slap Sinclair on the Wrist for Violating Rules

This Is Not the First Time Sinclair Has Been Called Out For Running Ads Designed to Look Like Actual News Programming


WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) fined Sinclair Broadcast Group $13.3 million over a failure to disclose 1,700 ads across its local stations. The FCC is currently overseeing the merger between Sinclair and Tribune Media, a deal that would give Sinclair, currently the largest local broadcast news company, access to 72 percent of U.S. households and create a duopoly in at least 14 media markets. Given this recent violation by Sinclair, the FCC should pump the brakes on the Sinclair-Tribune merger and hold Sinclair to a higher standard of scrutiny.

According to Reuters, the fine is “about $7,700 for each of the improperly aired spots… significantly less than the maximum fine Sinclair could have faced under the law.” This isn’t the first time Sinclair has been seen as blurring the lines between reporting and promoting corporations. According to a Bloomberg report in July 2017, a 2015 newscast at Sinclair’s Fox affiliate in Baltimore displayed prominent product placement for McDonald’s Corp and “according to a former employee… the whole thing was staged as part of an advertising deal with McDonald’s Corp.—something that was never disclosed to viewers.” Sinclair later denied the segment was paid by McDonald’s.

In 2006, then-FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said fines for airing news releases from corporations “can include fines of up to $32,000 per incident. It can include revocation of the license of the station, and in fact some of these violations are also criminal acts, which under the law can be prosecuted by the Justice Department and results in up to a year in jail.”

Given this is not the first time Sinclair’s content has been called into question for improperly disclosed advertising, the FCC fine is little more than a slap on the wrist for Sinclair.

“This isn’t the first time Sinclair has been caught playing fast and loose with the FCC rules, nor has it been the first time the FCC under Chairman Ajit Pai has treated the broadcast news giant with kid gloves. The FCC needs to do its job and stop this merger. Sinclair has demonstrated it can’t be trusted to follow the law or FCC rules. It shouldn’t be rewarded for this bad behavior,” said Karl Frisch, executive director of Allied Progress.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has a long history of changing FCC rules to help usher the Sinclair-Tribune merger along. For example, since February 2017, Pai has helped rescind rules on local marketing agreements, reinstated the UHF discount, eliminated the main studio rule, and voted to roll back longstanding media ownership rules. Just yesterday, the FCC voted to review the national TV ownership cap – possibly the biggest obstacle in the way of the Sinclair-Tribune merger.

The FCC under the Trump administration has been called “a clear and present danger to democracy.” Sinclair has built a reputation for its right-wing content, and has a record of forcing pro-Trump content into local news. Sinclair even hired Trump’s former campaign spokesperson, Boris Epshteyn, to create “must run” segments that air on Sinclair’s current 191 stations.

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