Invoking the First Amendment, Democrats Demand Government Investigate Company’s ‘News Activities’

Senators want FCC to revoke Sinclair's broadcast licenses for 'practices of news distortion'

Sen. Bernie Sanders / Getty Images

Democratic senators are demanding the government investigate the "news activities" of the Sinclair Broadcasting Group, saying they want a federal probe into a private news organization because they are "strong defenders of the First Amendment."

Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and others sent a letter Wednesday to Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai arguing Sinclair is unfit to hold broadcasting licenses because it objects to "fake news."

"We write to express our grave concerns regarding Sinclair Broadcasting Group's conduct," the Democratic senators said. "This conduct affects its fitness to hold its existing broadcast licenses and its fitness to acquire even more broadcast licenses through the proposed merger with Tribune Media Company."

"In particular, we have strong concerns that Sinclair has violated the public interest obligation inherent in holding broadcast licenses," the senators continued. "Sinclair may have violated the FCC's longstanding policy against broadcast licensees deliberately distorting news by staging, slanting, or falsifying information (traditionally known as the news distortion standard)."

"Multiple news outlets report that Sinclair has been forcing local news anchors to read Sinclair-mandated scripts warning of the dangers of ‘one-sided news stories plaguing our country,' over the protests from local news teams," they said.

Mainstream media outlets seized on the script earlier this month, accusing Sinclair of promoting propaganda. The original script asked viewers for feedback on their news coverage, acknowledging, "sometimes our reporting might fall short." The script also criticized news anchors who "push their own personal bias and agenda" and warned against the spread of fake news on social media.

The Democratic senators say they want a federal investigation into Sinclair out of their devotion to freedom of the press.

"As strong defenders of the First Amendment, guarantees of free speech and freedom of the press, we are alarmed by such practices," they said. "In the United States, the airwaves belong to the American people. The Federal Communications Commission is responsible for ensuring that broadcast licensees use the public airwaves to serve the public interest."

"We call on the FCC to investigate whether Sinclair's production of distorted news reports fails the public interest test," the senators said.

Signers of the letter include Sen. Sanders (I., Vt.) and Democratic senators Booker (N.J.), Warren (Mass.), Maria Cantwell (Wash.), Tom Udall (N.M.), Patty Murray (Wash.), Ron Wyden (Ore.), Edward Markey (Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Tina Smith (Minn.), Jeffrey Merkley (Ore.), and Tammy Baldwin (Ill.).

The senators asked Pai to investigate Sinclair, which is awaiting approval of its purchase of Tribune Media last year, for "practices of news distortion."

"We are concerned that if the Sinclair-Tribune merger continues without a thorough review of these new facts, Sinclair's practices of news distortion will proliferate to even more local stations, which Americans rely upon every day for fair and impartial news," they said.

"For these reasons, it is imperative that the FCC investigate Sinclair's news activities to determine if it conforms to the public interest," the senators added. "This investigation should, at a minimum, examine whether the scripting of local news programs is tantamount to news distortion."

The FCC has very limited authority to address complaints regarding the accuracy or bias of news networks, due to the First Amendment's protection of freedom of the press. The FCC also cannot impede upon a broadcaster's selection of commentary, like the Sinclair script.

"The FCC's authority to respond to these complaints is narrow in scope, and the agency is prohibited by law from engaging in censorship or infringing on First Amendment rights of the press," according to the FCC. "Moreover, the FCC cannot interfere with a broadcaster's selection and presentation of news or commentary."

"The FCC may act only when it has received documented evidence, such as testimony from persons who have direct personal knowledge of an intentional falsification of the news," the FCC says. "Without such documented evidence, the FCC generally cannot intervene."

Democratic senators are targeting Sinclair's broadcast licenses. Sinclair is the largest television operator in the country. Its affiliates include local ABC, CBS, and Fox stations.

"More generally, these new facts about how Sinclair operates its stations suggest that it may not be complying with the public interest obligations inherent in holding broadcast licenses," the senators said. "An affirmative finding could disqualify Sinclair from holding its existing licenses and should disqualify it from acquiring additional broadcast licenses."

The senators' letter comes after Sinclair is already facing resistance from the FCC and the Justice Department for the Tribune merger, with antitrust officials wanting the company to sell some stations in order to get the nearly $4 billion deal approved.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) also has targeted Sinclair, calling the broadcaster "troubling" and demanding information about its editorial policies.

Democratic senators say they are "alarmed" by the Sinclair script, though they themselves have vowed to combat "fake news."

"[W]e're concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one sided news stories plaguing our country," the Sinclair script read. "The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media."

Warren has a dedicated page on her campaign website devoted to flagging "fake news" about her.

"Have you seen a news story, social media post, meme, email, or other online content that is spreading false information about Elizabeth Warren and/or our campaign?" Warren's campaign asks. "The best way for us to fight fake news is to know about it. Report anything suspicious to us using the form below."

The Democratic National Committee is also working to fight "fake news" during this campaign season.