The Federal Communications Commission fined the Sinclair Broadcast Group $13.4 million on Thursday for failing to disclose to viewers that a series of advertisements designed to look like news were not paid content.
According to the agency, the spots were broadcast across a number of stations over 1,700 times. The advertisements were paid for by the Huntsman Cancer Center, a non-profit group supporting cancer research that was started by former Republican presidential candidate John Huntsman's father. The fine is the largest ever issued by the FCC for failure to comply with its sponsorship disclosure rules.
"This programming promoted the Foundation and the Institute and included 60- to 90-second sponsored stories made to look like independently generated news coverage and 30-minute paid television programs," the FCC said in a statement.
In a statement of its own, Sinclair said it would challenge the penalty and calling it unfair.
"Sinclair proudly supports the Cancer Foundation and its educational mission. Any absence of sponsorship identification in these public service segments was unintended and a result of simple human error," the company said.
The privately held company argued that the fine is "unreasonable" in light of the fact that violation was not done at the behest of a commercial operation.
“After working to reach a reasonable settlement, we are disappointed by [the ruling], which we believe is unreasonable, given the circumstances of our case and the absence of any viewer harm,"
The privately held company's critics are arguing that the fine is further proof that the FCC should not allow Sinclair to purchase scores of local broadcast stations.
"This isn’t the first time Sinclair has been caught playing fast and loose with the FCC rules, nor has it been the first time the FCC under Chairman Ajit Pai has treated the broadcast news giant with kid gloves," Karl Frisch, executive director of the left-leaning group Allied Progress told Salon.
"The FCC needs to do its job and stop this merger. Sinclair has demonstrated it can’t be trusted to follow the law or FCC rules. It shouldn’t be rewarded for this bad behavior.”
Currently, Republicans outnumber Democrats on the board of the FCC, 3-2. The agency's two Democrats dissented from the ruling, arguing the fines for Sinclair should have been higher.
"While I agree with the FCC acting against Sinclair for violating the
FCC’s rules, I dissent because of such a meager fine, which fails to match the scope and egregious nature of the violations that were committed," Commissioner Mignon Clyburn wrote. She cited several other instances where the company had been fined for violating sponsorship rules, including one in 2005 in which Sinclair commentator Armstrong Williams had failed to tell viewers that he had been paid $240,000 by Department of Education under then-president George W. Bush to promote legislation.