12 US senators seek FCC probe of Sinclair news scripts, pause in Tribune review

WASHINGTON, April 12 (Reuters) - Twelve U.S. senators on Thursday asked the Federal Communications Commission to investigate Sinclair Broadcasting Group for "deliberately distorting news" and asked the commission to pause its ongoing review of the company's proposed $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media Co.

Sinclair, which is already the largest U.S. broadcast station owner, announced plans in May 2017 to acquire Tribune’s 42 TV stations in 33 markets, extending its reach to 72 percent of American households.

In a letter, the senators, 11 Democrats and independent Bernie Sanders, expressed concern about local news anchors at Sinclair-owned stations around the country being forced to read company-mandated scripts. The scripts criticized "the troubling trend of irresponsible, one sided news stories plaguing our country" and have drawn fire.

"We are concerned that Sinclair is engaged in a systematic news distortion operation that seeks to undermine freedom of the press and the robust localism and diversity of viewpoint that is the foundation of our national broadcasting laws,” the senators wrote. They added that it "may have violated the FCC’s longstanding policy against broadcast licensees deliberately distorting news by staging, slanting, or falsifying information."

Social media users react to Sinclair Broadcast Group's 'false news' script
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Social media users react to Sinclair Broadcast Group's 'false news' script
Sinclair Media is one small step above the type of state-run propaganda used by dictators. We must protect our fre… https://t.co/CtOWsqmE65
Actually, this isn't funny at all. None of it. When media giants gobble up local news stations, there are repercu… https://t.co/1ztiAuR4p6
News anchors looking into camera and reading a script handed down by a corporate overlord, words meant to obscure t… https://t.co/Z7HB6evFpo
We are calling for a strike against Sinclair Broadcasting on May 15th. This calls on the employees of Sinclair-run… https://t.co/S0jvxzeHcs
With today's tweets about Amazon and Sinclair Broadcasting, President Trump has told the country that he doesn't de… https://t.co/vZqa3xtdfP
Dear Sinclair: As a scholar of democracy & authoritarianism, I can assure you that your top-down, scripted attack o… https://t.co/yNfyiUW0F2
BOOM!! Political candidate Amy McGrath has just pulled all of her ads from Sinclair Broadcasting.… https://t.co/obTomtIqzk
A lot of people are curious about this, so a former Sinclair journalist sent me a Sinclair contract. Here are the p… https://t.co/5dw5SI5cpC
Every local station that competes with Sinclair should do a story on them using the exact same script.
John Oliver compares Sinclair news anchors to “members of a brainwashed cult” https://t.co/X8xGi5jwad https://t.co/aRhiapjGCh
Another former Sinclair journalist: https://t.co/USgXTNRCtm
I believe we need a regulation that bans owners of local news stations from centrally dictating content. If Sincla… https://t.co/UUGjktGspB

Republicans in Congress have not backed criticism of Sinclair. After the scripts drew significant public attention, President Donald Trump tweeted on April 2 in defense of Sinclair: "Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC."

The FCC and the Justice Department are reviewing Sinclair's deal.

In February, Representative Frank Pallone, a Democrat, said the FCC's inspector general was investigating whether FCC Chairman Ajit Pai was biased in favor of Sinclair.

Pallone in November asked the inspector general to investigate, citing a string of FCC decisions he said benefited Sinclair and a media report that Trump's election campaign struck a deal with Sinclair for favorable coverage.

Pai has repeatedly denied he has taken actions aimed at benefiting a single company and Sinclair has denied improper conduct.

The FCC and Sinclair declined to comment on the senators' letter, signed by the 11 Democrats, including Senators Maria Cantwell, Tom Udall, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Richard Blumenthal, as well as Sanders.

In February, Sinclair offered to sell two major TV stations in Chicago and New York owned by Tribune to companies with ties to Sinclair as part of its effort to win FCC approval.

Sinclair said, however, that it would seek to operate both stations as if it owned them. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that the plan has run into resistance at the FCC, but the merger is still expected to be approved.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Dan Grebler)

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