Sinclair Broadcast Group To Pay $48 Million Penalty To Close FCC Investigations

Sinclair Broadcast Group will pay $48 million in a civil penalty — the largest in the FCC’s history — to close three open government investigations, including of its conduct as it sought to acquire Tribune Media in 2018.

The fines, however, do not revoke FCC licenses, a sanction that some critics of the broadcaster should be imposed given its alleged conduct during the Tribune transaction.

“Sinclair’s conduct during its attempt to merge with Tribune was completely unacceptable,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.  “Today’s penalty, along with the failure of the Sinclair/Tribune transaction, should serve as a cautionary tale to other licensees seeking Commission approval of a transaction in the future.  On the other hand, I disagree with those who, for transparently political reasons, demand that we revoke Sinclair’s licenses.  While they don’t like what they perceive to be the broadcaster’s viewpoints, the First Amendment still applies around here.”

Sinclair’s news programming often has come under scrutiny, particularly for a practice mandating that stations run right-leaning commentary segments during local newscasts. The company ended those segments in December.

But as it sought to merge with Tribune Media in 2017 and 2018, creating a broadcast station giant with more than 200 stations, opponents focused on the company’s tactics in winning regulatory approval for the transaction.

In July, 2018, the FCC announced that it was not approving the merger but instead sending it to an administrative law judge, concluding that there were “material questions” of whether Sinclair misrepresented itself or engaged in a “lack of candor” over its plan to divest stations and comply with media ownership limits. The next month, Sinclair and Tribune dropped their merger plan. Nexstar ended up acquiring Tribune.

In a statement, Sinclair President and CEO Chris Ripley said that they were “pleased with the resolution” announced by the FCC. “We thank the FCC staff for their diligence in reaching this resolution,” the company said. “Sinclair is committed to continue to interact constructively with all of its regulators to ensure full compliance with applicable laws, rules and regulations.”

In addition to the investigation of Sinclair’s conduct during the merger proceedings, the consent decree with the FCC includes the closure of other probes. That includes one into whether Sinclair met its obligations to negotiate retransmission consent agreements in good faith, and another over its failure to make required disclosure of the true sponsor of content that was made to look like news reports or longer form 30-minute presentations. In fact the true sponsor of the content was the Huntsman Cancer Foundation. The FCC already had voted to propose a fine of more than $13 million for the practice, as the programming in question was broadcast more than 1,700 times.


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