Craig Aaron, the president and CEO of Free Press, an advocacy group opposing media consolidation and the Sinclair-Tribune merger, was initially shocked when he heard Pai’s announcement.
“First, we had to pick ourselves up off the floor because Ajit Pai’s record being FCC chair, really up until a week ago, was to do everything he could to advantage and favor Sinclair,” Aaron said in a phone interview. “This definitely is a 180 from where the FCC leadership was basically the entire Trump administration until the last week.”
Sinclair’s tactics have created enemies on the right, as well. Chris Ruddy, the CEO of Newsmax, a rival to Sinclair in providing conservative news, has previously said the merger would be “destructive to the Republican Party and conservatives.” Ruddy, known as a friend and close advisor of President Trump, has reportedly met with the president and with Pai to express opposition to the deal.
Rupert Murdoch might be the biggest beneficiary, as Fox News Channel is the national leader in conservative news. “Anything that weakens Sinclair would seem to be positive for Rupert Murdoch,” said the media analyst Rich Greenfield to Politico last week. Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox will be doubling down on news and sports, selling its entertainment properties to Walt Disney in a deal for which the Trump administration has cleared the way.
Some media observers said that Pai’s decision last week was not out of left field, however. “It was such a long process that obviously the commission, early on in their discussions with Sinclair, expressed concerns about some of the side deals and how they were going to comply with the national and local ownership rules, so I don’t think it’s much more than that,” said Mark Fratrik, the senior vice president and chief economist for BIA/Kelsey, a media and advertising consultancy that lists Sinclair as a client.
But Fratrik said he was surprised about Pai’s decision because it made economic sense for Sinclair to scale up and tap into a larger advertiser base that can compete with national networks.
While Pai’s decision may hurt broadcasters’ abilities to devise sidecar agreements—agreements he has previously supported when used appropriately—his stance on Sinclair could smooth the way for his regulatory agenda. For better or worse, deserved or not, the Sinclair story was intertwined with nearly all of Pai’s ambitions. While this decision will help ameliorate allegations of corporate favoritism toward Sinclair—the subject of the ongoing inspector-general investigation—it may also clear away scrutiny if Pai embarks upon a serious crusade to, for instance, raise the national ownership cap this fall.
“It’s sort of logical in the longer arc of conservative thought on these issues,” said Aaron. “But it is surprising, in some ways, especially given the fact that Sinclair has essentially been a propaganda outlet for the Trump administration. But you would argue that Ajit Pai may be thinking a little longer-term about where he wants to be seen on some of those questions.”
With Pai now able to move beyond the public ire over the Sinclair case, the conservative chairman could succeed in implementing many of the deregulatory moves that looked so promising for Sinclair this time around. And if that is the case, Pai’s tenure could mark a legitimate conservative push for media deregulation in the coming years.