TV stations work hard to hide cost of political ads (Albuquerque Journal)

Meredith McGehee
Jan 11, 2016
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In these days, when there seems to be almost limitless information available at the tap of your finger, what would drive anyone to try to hide information that is required to be in plain sight?

Just ask the nation’s television broadcasters. They have figured out a way to do just that and – using their political clout in Washington – they are getting away with it so far.

But if Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., has his way, the political games being played by the broadcasters will be shut down and the public will actually be able to see who is pouring millions of dollars into local TV stations to buy political ads. Here’s the story.

Two years ago, the Federal Communications Commission updated long-standing public disclosure rules to require television broadcasters to upload their public file to an FCC database. The public file contains data disclosing basic information such as station ownership as well as the rates charged by stations for political ads.

The rules governing these public files originated with the Radio Act and are nearly a hundred years old. They are intended to ensure broadcasters act as good stewards for the public airwaves they are licensed to use for free.

Until the recent FCC action, anyone who wanted to actually see the public file had to physically go to the TV station, request to see the public file and then wade through piles of papers. The process was hard, intentionally so, and woefully out of date in the digital age.

A 2011 FCC working group report called for the political ad files to be put online and recommended that “as much data as possible [be] in a standardized, machine-readable format” that “could also enhance the usefulness and accessibility of the data.”

However, the FCC’s new rules implementing the database – and getting good headlines in the process – didn’t deliver.

Rather than requiring broadcasters to file the information in a machine-readable format to a searchable, sortable and downloadable online database, the FCC is allowing stations to upload PDFs to the database, in some cases handwritten barely legible, with few meaningful guidelines to ensure that the information is standardized across the industry.

Broadcasters balked mightily at the prospect of uploading standardized information because they want to make it hard for the public – and especially non-political advertisers – to see how much they are charging to air political ads. They were so worried about revealing the required information that they fought to retain a system that is more burdensome on the industry.

Currently, TV stations keep the information concerning ad buys on computers in sometimes sophisticated databases. It is actually more work for TV stations to take this digital information and convert it into PDFs than it would be to upload their files to the FCC database.

The Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C., joined by the Sunlight Foundation and Common Cause, has been pushing the FCC to stop dragging its feet and bring the agency’s disclosure regime into the 21st century. That means requiring stations to upload their files in machine-readable form as well as expanding the online disclosure requirements to cable, satellite and radio.

Rep. Luján’s bill, H.R. 4179, The Fair and Clear Campaign Transparency Act, or FCC Transparency Act, is short and sweet. It directs the FCC to get the searchable, sortable, downloadable database up and running immediately.

The bill is pending in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, but unfortunately, no action on the bill is scheduled.

Of course, there’s really no need for Congress to do anything since the FCC already has the power to upload their files in the publicly accessible format. But President Obama’s appointee, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, is apparently too cowed by the power of the TV broadcasters to act.

The Luján bill sends a message that this failure of leadership at the FCC can’t be swept under the rug.

This bill is not a partisan measure and is constitutional. The Supreme Court has continued to consistently uphold measures focused on disclosure.

So the question remains: Why are the broadcasters keeping the public in the dark? And how long will the TV stations, a powerful lobby in our nation’s capital, get away with it?

We’ll see.

Meredith McGehee serves as Policy Director at the Campaign Legal Center where she directs the legislative and media policy efforts. In addition, she is the principal of McGehee Strategies, which specializes in public interest advocacy campaigns.

This opinion piece originally ran in The Albuquerque Journal on January 10, 2016. To read it there, click here.

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