Why, why, Mr American Pai? FCC boss under increasing pressure in corporate favoritism row
Watchdog commish continues ringing alarm bell over Sinclair coziness
Analysis Ajit Pai, chairman of America's telecoms regulator, the FCC, is under renewed scrutiny for making a string of decisions that benefited Sinclair, a major US broadcaster.
Back in October, FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel told a congressional hearing: "I think it has reached a point where all [the FCC's] media policy decisions seem to be custom built for this one company, and I think it merits investigation."
She was referring to the communications watchdog's seemingly cosy relationship with Sinclair: the FCC, under Ajit Pai, has been tweaking rules here and there, all of which will help the TV and radio giant expand and strengthen its empire.
And today, speaking to journalist Michael Tomasky, Rosenworcel reiterated her earlier complaint: that "every element of our media policy is custom-built for the business plan of Sinclair Broadcasting." She argued that Pai and his two yes-men leading the commission were "burning down the values of media policy in this agency in order to service this company."
Rosenworcel has been careful in the past not to directly accuse Pai of servicing Sinclair's interests. However, that the FCC's own inspector general is digging into whether Pai acted to "improperly benefit" the rightwing media organization appears to have opened the dam gates.
"It is stunning, it is striking, and it looks like something's wrong," Rosenworcel went on. "And I’m not the only one to think that."
A series of decisions by the regulator since Pai took charge has left the two Democratic commissioners – Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn – on the five-person FCC leadership team confused, and then increasingly angry. Each decision benefited Sinclair, some blatantly so – such as the resurrection of an outdated rule that directly enabled Sinclair to propose a $4bn mega-merger with Tribune Media.
There are hundreds of different rules and measures introduced over the years by the FCC, the majority designed to foster competition while protecting consumers. But Pai's team has persistently focused in on a small number of them covering media ownership – all of which directly benefit Sinclair.
The pattern only partly fits with Pai's frequently stated desire to introduce "light touch" regulation. And the correlation between obscure rules being changed and Sinclair Broadcasting's subsequent actions – most notable with the merger announcement – is so stark that even Washington DC veterans are surprised at what looks like blatant favoritism.
Pai has been taking an ever-increasing partisan approach at an organization that has traditionally prided itself on objectivity – largely because telecoms policy is not known for being a hot bed of political intrigue.
Just last week, Pai and fellow Republicans FCC commissioners Michael O'Rielly and Brendan Carr attended the solidly rightwing Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), and Pai even accepted the gift of a showpiece gun from the National Rifle Association (NRA). As federal regulators, FCC commissioners have always made it a point not to attend, let alone appear on stage, at political events.
O'Rielly further discarded that neutral approach when he responded to a question about how the FCC could avoid being moved by the winds of partisan warfare. "I think what we can do is make sure as conservatives that we elect good people to both the House, Senate and make sure that President Trump gets reelected," he said in a strikingly partisan response.
It left him facing ethics complaints under the Hatch Act – approved back in 1939 – under which government officials are barred from engaging in political activity.
"The FCC controls our airwaves, the internet, and so many of the things we interact with every single day," said Austin Evers, the executive director of American Oversight – a group focused on highlighting ethics problems within the Trump Administration, and which vowed to raise a Hatch Act gripe.
"It should be independent, it should not be partisan, and bottom line, it should obey the law." But, of course, American Oversight is itself closely connected with the Democratic Party, which could further fuel the partisan divide.
Not so the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) – which is non-partisan – and which said in a statement that O'Rielly's statement "certainly raises Hatch Act issues."
For his part, O'Rielly's spokesman denied any advocacy: "Commissioner O'Rielly was asked a question on how to prevent the agency from ping-ponging back and forth. He tried to respond in a factual way without engaging in advocacy."
The problem with partisan posturing is that it only creates further noise and undermines confidence that a federal agency is making decisions in the interests of all US citizens, rather than pushing a political agenda or making decisions to further specific interests.
There has always been a degree of special-interest concern when it comes to regulatory decisions: even the much-lauded net neutrality rules passed by Pai's predecessor were subject to a highly dubious last-minute change in favor of Obama Administration favorite Google.
But Pai and his cronies have taken the issue to a whole new level: even willingly discarding the agency's entire public comment process because the millions of fake responses proved useful to their pre-decided position. The agency then misrepresented public opposition to its plans as a computer network attack.
It is shameless, and as with many other parts of today's White House administration, the institutional checks and balances are racing to catch up with a forceful repudiation of political norms of neutrality.
To that end, Pai is facing a petition, put together by the advocacy group The Free Press, demanding that "Chairman Pai recuse himself from reviewing the Sinclair merger while he's under investigation."
The sad truth is that Ajit Pai has actively encouraged and welcomed the attention that this kind of partisan activity imbues, even appearing in a ridiculous video mocking opponents to his plan to scrap America's net neutrality rules.
Stirring up partisan rancor and riding the wave of public outcry is a fairly common, if nauseating, way of raising your profile that has been used by politicians and political commentators for decades. But until recently it has always signaled the death of any career as a public servant.
It remains to be seen whether Pai ends up being a trailblazer for a new type of federal regulator that makes no pretence of being neutral in his decision-making, or whether Pai ends up becoming a textbook reference to the exception that proves the rule.
Either way, he can expect his every decision from this day forth to be seen through a partisan filter and with an eye to whether it benefits one particular company. Normally that would be something that a regulator would wish to avoid. ®