The corporate owner of a Missoula television station is facing a probe by the Justice Department over allegations that it inflated local advertising prices, the Wall Street Journal reported Friday.
The probe involves Sinclair Broadcasting Group, which owns KECI in Missoula, and Tribune Media Group. The companies own dozens of local television stations across the country, including the local NBC affiliate.
A Sinclair spokesman told the Journal that the company does not comment on ongoing investigations.
The probe is looking at whether the ad sales teams at the Sinclair and Tribune stations communicated with one another about their performance, leading to higher rates for local TV commercials.
According to the Journal, government officials discovered the alleged sales practice during the review of Sinclair’s proposed acquisition of Tribune. Sinclair is the nation’s largest owner of local TV stations and would grow even bigger through the $3.9 billion deal.
Sinclair is also known as a conservative-leaning media organization and has forced its stations to run opinion segments supportive of President Donald Trump and conservative causes.
On Tuesday, Trump took aim at the FCC for blocking Sinclair’s attempts to acquire Tribune.
“This would have been a great and much-needed Conservative voice for and of the People,” Trump tweeted. “Liberal Fake News NBC and Comcast gets approved, much bigger, but not Sinclair. Disgraceful!”
One staffer told CNN that the president’s tweet “actually hurt us – because of the conservative line.”
Sinclair purchased Bonten Media Holdings – the former parent company of KECI – last April for $240 million. The move marked an acceleration of television industry consolidation that has some media watchdogs worried.
In April, Sinclair forced its anchors to read a promotional script that warned viewers about “fake news” on rival stations. That month, local KECI new anchors followed suit, suggesting they were concerned with the “troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories.”
Sinclair hired Trump’s former spokesman to serve as its chief political analyst, noting that he would appear on the 170-plus stations Sinclair owns and operates.
The company also struck a deal to broadcast Trump interviews without any commentary or political analysis – a deal reportedly made to ensure Sinclair received greater access to then-candidate Trump.