Time for the FCC to Enforce the Law (CommonBlog)
CBS profit will climb by $180 million this year from political advertising, Chief Executive Officer Les Moonves said, exceeding the amount received by the company in the last presidential election year. Political action committees are boosting the amount of money being spent on television and radio commercials in support of candidates and issues, Moonves said today at an entertainment law conference at the University of California, Los Angeles. CBS will take in more political ads than the 2008 presidential election year, he said. “Super PACs may be bad for America,” Moonves said, “but they’re very good for CBS.”
Bloomberg News, March 10, 2012
Right now, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of misleading and often scurrilous attack ads are pouring into our political campaigns, financed by people and organizations which go to great lengths to remain anonymous. But amidst all this uncertainty, one thing’s for sure: the broadcasters running these ads are making a pretty penny.
Many of the ads are placed by Super PACs whose names tell voters little about what they stand for. And while those Super PACs are required to file reports at the Federal Election Commission, Americans face many obstacles in figuring out who is really behind an ad.
Dozens of the Super PACs have perfected a shell game that passes funding through so-called “dark money” groups to cloak the funds’ real origins. A whole new crop of these organizations sprouted up in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, which allows corporations to make independent expenditures in campaigns using their corporate treasury funds. These dark money groups claim that they are in the “social welfare” business and thus claim a tax status that allows them to avoid the disclosure requirements for political committees.
While these donors may be unknown to the public, you can bet they are no secret to Washington’s politicians and candidates. And the capital city is full of lobbyists skilled at converting those contributions to access and influence in Washington, often behind closed doors.
Still, our nation has a long established tradition of transparency in our electoral processes. Americans deserve to know where the money spent to influence their votes and the outcome of our elections is coming from. And luckily, there already is a statute on the books to do just that. Section 317 of the Communications Act requires on-air identification of the sponsors of all television and radio advertisements — political and commercial.
Explaining the rules it wrote years ago to implement the statute, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) stipulated that political ads must “fully and fairly disclose the true identity of the person or persons, corporation or committee, association or other unincorporated group, or other entity” paying for them. “Listeners are entitled to know by whom they are being persuaded,” the Commission said. Even the Supreme Court has stated that “transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”
So it should come as no surprise that The New York Times reported on Sunday that “The increasingly expensive elections that play out across the country every two years are making [television] stations look like a smart investment, with the revenue piling up each time a candidate says, ‘I approve this message.’”
The American people deserve accurate, reliable information as they contemplate their votes; in dodging the letter of the law broadcast companies are damaging its spirit. With television serving as America’s main source of news, according to a brand new Gallup Poll also released this week, it becomes even more urgent for the FCC to update its rules – now more than 25 years old — and enforce Section 317. With the 2014 elections just 16 months away, the new Chair of the FCC must make action to update Section 317 rules a priority.
This opinion piece originally appeared on Common Cause's CommonBlog on July 10, 2013. To read it on CommonBlog, click here.