TV Stations on Political Ads: Take the Money and Run

Meredith McGehee
Feb 17, 2016
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Photo Credit: The Climate Group via Creative Commons

Stations Violate the Law When They Don’t Disclose Political Ads’ True Sponsors 

Americans deserve to know who is behind the flood of political ads saturating the airwaves these days.

But some TV stations are not really motivated to ask any tough questions to learn who is behind these ads, fearing they’ll lose the ad dollars. After all, there is no limit on how much the stations can charge Super PACs and dark-money groups for ads.  And no one can blame these stations for being eager to rake in the big bucks from these cash cows.

Still, under law, stations have an obligation to disclose the ads’ sponsors. The Communications Act requires stations to “fully and fairly disclose the true identity” of an ad sponsor. The long-standing sponsorship identification requirements are in place to ensure that viewers know who is trying to persuade them.

In this election cycle, Super PACs and dark-money groups are running millions of dollars’ worth of ads – more than ever before. While there were only 43 federal Super PACs active in 2012, today there are more than 2,200 Super PACs registered, with 84 of them spending money this cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. There are approximately 30 dark-money groups active in this election cycle. These groups have already spent three times as much in federal elections compared to 2012. And many of these groups have names that give the viewer no meaningful information about the true sponsor of the ad. 

Take, for example, Independence USA PAC, which paid to run ads on 18 TV stations portraying the state attorney generals of Michigan, Missouri, Wisconsin and Florida as “siding with polluters” because they opposed the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan.

Independence USA PAC is a Super PAC that is 100 percent funded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. This information is available through a simple Google search, yet none of the stations disclosed this information when they ran the ads.  

Similarly, single-candidate Super PACs like “Right to Rise” (connected to presidential candidate Jeb Bush), “Generation Forward” (connected to former presidential candidate Martin O’Malley) to “American Future Fund” or “Americans Next” use names that provide viewers no information about who is behind them. But TV stations are obligated to provide this information to the viewer.

Campaign Legal Center is putting pressure on the FCC to enforce the law and require TV stations to give the viewers what they need. In December, we filed complaints at the FCC against the 18 stations that were running the ads sponsored by Independence USA PAC.

Not surprisingly, the stations responded to the complaints with a variety of defenses – from claiming that the information contained in their public files is sufficient to meet the Communications Act’s requirements, to claiming that this was a matter for the Federal Election Commission not the FCC.

We disagree. On February 12, CLC and our partners Common Cause and Sunlight Foundation, represented by the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown Law, convincingly demonstrated that the FCC should find these stations in violation of the law.

Our reply comments make note of the findings in a 1996 FCC case, Trumper Communications of Portland, Ltd. In the case, “Fairness Matters for Oregonians Committee,” which was identified as the on-air sponsor of a series of ads airing about tobacco policy, was merely serving as a front group for the Tobacco Institute. The FCC’s Media Bureau found that Tobacco Institute should have been identified as the true sponsor of the ads.   

Of course, it would also be helpful if FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler would move quickly, in the aftermath of the Citizens United decision and the rise of the Internet, to further clarify the regulations implementing the Communications Act.  In the meantime, the FCC should at least enforce this long-standing, court-tested statute.  

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