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FCC won't investigate Sinclair over 'media bias' warnings

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, citing concerns over violating the First Amendment, denies a request from Senate Democrats to investigate Sinclair Broadcast Group.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai won't be investigating Sinclair Broadcast Group for "distorting news" coverage.

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Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai speaks to members of the media after a commission meeting. 

Alex Wong / Getty Images

In a letter written to Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Indiana, Pai declined a request from a dozen lawmakers -- 11 Democrats and Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont -- to investigate Sinclair's broadcast license. The request arose after the company had news anchors at its stations across the US read a script warning viewers of "fake news." Pai also declined to pause review of Sinclair's proposed $3.9 billion merger with Tribune Media.

The letter was first obtained and reported by Breitbart on Thursday. The FCC confirmed the letter was sent, but declined to comment further.

Pai said he's turning down the request to investigate the company because of his commitment to the First Amendment and freedom of the press.

"I understand that you disliked or disagreed with the content of particular broadcasts," he said in the letter. "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."

He also said the FCC "does not have the authority to revoke a license of a broadcast station based on the content of a particular newscast."

Pai's letter comes as the FCC is still reviewing Sinclair's merger with Tribune, which critics say will make the media company too powerful. Sinclair already owns nearly 200 television stations in the US including several Fox, ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates. If it buys Tribune Media it will control local stations reaching nearly three-quarters of US households.

Meanwhile, there are also accusations that Pai, who was appointed chairman of the FCC by President Donald Trump, has been giving Sinclair preferential treatment. The New York Times reported in February that the FCC inspector general was looking into whether Pai improperly pushed through rules in an effort to benefit Sinclair. Pai has denied wrongdoing.

Then came a video mash-up that went viral. It showed dozens of Sinclair anchors across the country simultaneously reading the scripted segment warning viewers of "fake news" and media bias that poses an "extremely dangerous" threat to democracy, which Democrats on Capitol Hill and former employees have criticized. Trump, who's called for the FCC to take action against CNN, which owns no broadcast licenses, defended Sinclair in a tweet.

Sinclair executives say the promos show no bias and are part of a well-researched journalistic initiative.

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