FCC: Issues: Disclosure

Public Interest Groups Urge FCC to Continue Improving Political Ad Transparency
On August 26, 2013, the Public Interest Public Airwaves Coalition (PIPAC), whose members include the Benton Foundation, the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Free Press, the New America Foundation and the United Church of Christ Office of Communication Inc., along with the Sunlight Foundation, filed comments with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) about the agency’s rules requiring broadcasters to post their political files online.

In April 2012, the FCC adopted rules requiring broadcasters in the top 50 markets that are affiliated with the "top four" national networks to post their political files online. All other stations will be required to post their files online by July 2014. Political files contain information on political advertisements, including the groups purchasing ads, the prices paid and times aired. They include political advertising information on all electoral races and ballot initiatives — information that is not available anywhere else. Posting these files online has created greater transparency about the impact of political ads on the electoral process.

In their filing, PIPAC and the Sunlight Foundation underscore the public benefits of the FCC’s online-posting requirement. Having access to online files has contributed to more comprehensive reporting on the sources of political advertising and has provided the public with critical information regarding the funders behind these advertisements.

In the filing, the groups call for improvements to the current reporting system and urge the FCC to adopt data and reporting standards that will improve the accessibility and usability of the data. The groups ask the FCC to adopt data standards that are similar to those the Federal Election Commission uses and recommends that the agency require stations to file machine-readable data. These improvements would help reduce reporting errors while also facilitating the creation of a more user-friendly database.

PIPAC and Sunlight note that taking these steps "would permit political file data to be easily aggregated and analyzed. The public would benefit from being better informed about important electoral races, issues, and the political process in general. It would permit the public, as well as the Commission, to better monitor broadcast stations' compliance with statutory and regulatory requirements. Further, it would significantly reduce paperwork burdens for broadcast stations."

To read the comments, click here.

FCC Vote Brings Political Ad Files from Backrooms to the Internet for Top 50 Markets

On April 27, 2012, the Federal Communications Commission took an important step to bring broadcasting into the 21st Century by requiring television broadcasters to put their public and political files online beginning this year.

Since 1965, TV broadcast stations that hold licenses from the FCC to use the publicly owned airwaves to serve specific communities have been required to disclose information about “community-relevant information for public review.”  The purpose of the disclosure was to help ensure that the broadcasters are meeting their public interest obligations and, in the case of the political file, especially to ensure they are abiding by their statutory obligations to offer candidates lower cost advertising in the heat of a campaign – an “anti-gouging” assurance.

The FCC voted 2-1 today to move the public file from the back room file cabinets onto a central, online database hosted by the FCC.  Those files include information about who purchased political ad time, the disposition of any request to purchase time for a political ad, the amount charged and when the political ad actually ran.  For the first two years, the new rule applies only to stations that are affiliated with the top four national networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox) and are licensed to serve communities in the top 50 Designated Market Areas (DMAs).

“The Commission’s action is an important victory for transparency and accountability in our nation’s public policy making broadcasters’ public files truly public,” said Meredith McGehee, Policy Director of the Campaign Legal Center.  “Keeping this information in file cabinets that required a personal visit to the TV station served only to make it difficult to hold broadcasters accountable for meeting the few requirements they have – reasonable access, equal opportunity and lowest unit charge.

“It is unfortunate that in this year’s election, there will still be many markets that are expected to see massive advertising campaigns by outside groups where this information will remain difficult to access,” McGehee said.  “It is in the smaller, more affordable markets where political ads for congressional and state races play a more significant role in the outcome of elections.  Just look at the races for Senate in New Mexico, Virginia, Nebraska, and Montana.

“But hopefully this FCC action has set a process in place that will continue and cover those markets in time for the next election.  Commissioners Genachowski and Clyburn deserve credit for withstanding the onslaught of opposition that the broadcasters are always skilled at bringing on matters about which they are concerned.”

Broadcasters should post political public file information on their websites

The Campaign Legal Center has asked that the FCC require disclosure of political public file information on broadcasters' websites.

* Internet posting of political file records would facilitate timely access during peak election activity and alleviate burdens of handling numerous telephone calls and other requests for such information.

° Comcast has recently expressed willingness to improve public file access and to consider a policy allowing customers to access files using a computer terminal at Comcast locations.
Greenberg, Brigitte, Communications Daily, "'Fundamental Misunderstanding': Unions Ask FCC for Maximum Fine Against Comcast Over Documents," Jan. 27, 2004 .

* Website posting would promote discourse and public comment, potentially reducing need for further disclosure regulation.

* Easy access to true sponsorship identification via a website is especially pertinent in light of recent tactics of issue advocacy groups such as section 527 organizations.

Chappie, Damon, Roll Call, "Appeals Court Upholds 527 Disclosure Law," Jan. 5, 2004 .
Weissman, Steve, Kim Conger and Nick Turner, The Campaign Finance Institute, "New Internal Revenue Service Political Website a Bonanza of Campaign Finance Information for Journalists and Voters,"
July 14, 2003 .

* The Supreme Court favors disclosure of campaign and election information.

See McConnell v. FEC, 124 S.Ct.619 (2003).

Last Updated (Tuesday, 27 August 2013 16:27)

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