Sinclair’s Unrequited Tribune Quest Hits End Of FCC Review, But U.S. Judge Says “Extremely Serious Charges” Merit Probe

An Administrative Law Judge reviewing Sinclair Broadcast Group’s ultimately unsuccessful effort to acquire Tribune Media at the FCC’s behest has dismissed the case with prejudice, urging a more thorough investigation of the matter.

Judge Jane Halprin issued an order today saying proceeding with hearings in the case would be an “academic exercise,” in part because Tribune wound up being sold to Sinclair rival Nexstar. But her order emphasizes that the indications that Sinclair might have misled regulators “are extremely serious charges that reasonably warrant a thorough examination.”

The station group issued a statement in response to the order, saying it was pleased with the dismissal and defending its conduct. “We continue to maintain that we were completely candid, transparent and honest with
the FCC during its review of our proposed acquisition of Tribune Media,” the statement read in part.

The proposed $3.9 billion Sinclair-Tribune deal — which would have made what is already the No. 1 station group in the U.S. much larger, with reach into major cities like New York, LA and Chicago — fell apart last summer. Sinclair’s “sidecar” transactions planned for Tribune stations to be shed as required by anti-monopoly laws, attracted the suspicion of regulators. The FCC questioned the deals given the background and caliber of the proposed new station owners, which pointed to a scenario in which Sinclair could still control the stations and, therefore, flout the federal ownership limit.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican appointee of President Donald Trump who has worked for years to strip away regulation and promote free-market economics, made the stunning decision to refer the transaction to Halprin, which effectively killed the merger. Nexstar stepped in a short time later with its own $4.1 billion proposal to buy Tribune, a deal expected to close in the third quarter.

Trump has repeatedly expressed support for Sinclair and for the Sinclair-Tribune deal in particular. The company has  aired a steady stream of pro-Trump commentary segments on its stations and played an important role in securing his election in 2016. It had been rumored to be exploring the creation of a conservative media network that could rival Fox News, an initiative that was pursued behind the scenes but suffered a setback with the Tribune rebuff.

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