Journalism in the Public Interest

Behind Closed Doors, Broadcasters Battle Online Disclosure of Political Ad Buys

TV stations are taking their lobbying efforts directly to the FCC, which is expected to vote later this month on whether public data about what ads are bought, who bought them and for how much must be posted online.


The National Association of Broadcasters submitted photos of the size of their political and public files to show the burden of an online system (NAB)

The Federal Communications Commission is scheduled to vote April 27 on whether to require TV stations to post online public information about political ad buys. Some form of the rule seems likely to pass, but the industry and others are lobbying the FCC to alter the nature of the final rule.

(With the help of readers around the country, ProPublica is collecting stations’ public paper files containing data on political ads and posting them online because the information is generally unavailable elsewhere. See “Free the Files.”)

Right now we only know the broad thrust the proposed FCC rule: That broadcasters would have to electronically send the commission updates to its political file — in other words, information about what political ads are being purchased, by whom, and for how much money — instead of merely maintaining paper files at the stations, the current practice. The information would be made public on an FCC website.

The rule would apply initially to affiliates of the four major networks — ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX — in the top 50 markets. All other stations would have another two years before they'd have to begin filing electronically.

But the FCC won’t release the exact text of the rule until after the panel votes to finalize it later this month. Meanwhile, the wording is subject to change based on input from interested parties.

That’s why the National Association of Broadcasters has been paying visits to key FCC officials this month. A group of influential Republican senators has also told the FCC they oppose the proposed rule.

On April 3 and 10, National Association of Broadcasters President Gordon Smith met officials, including all three FCC commissioners, to make his case against required online disclosure of the public political ad information.

We know about Smith’s closed-door meetings at the FCC because of commission rules requiring prompt public disclosure filings that detail what is said when lobbyists come calling. The filings, which summarize the lobbyists’ pitches, are designed to assure that "FCC decisions are not influenced by impermissible off-the-record communications between decision-makers and others."

Smith is not just another Washington lobbyist. He’s a former two-term Republican senator from Oregon who sat on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which oversees broadcast-related legislation. He was hired less than a year after losing his Senate seat in a close race in 2008, reportedly in part because of "the wow factor" a former senator could offer the NAB.

It’s been a lucrative career change for Smith, who was paid $1.4 million by the NAB in 2010, more than eight times a senator’s salary of $174,000. (Smith, a lawyer and businessman, is used to making millions. His Oregon frozen-food businesses paid him millions of dollars in 2008, according to his final Senate financial disclosure.)

Also lobbying the commission was Jane Mago, executive vice president and general counsel of the NAB. She’s a familiar face at the FCC. Before joining the broadcasters’ group in 2004, Mago spent more than 26 years at the commission, holding top positions, including general counsel.

The broadcasters have often complained about the clerical burden they say the rule would impose, even bringing the FCC pictures of the size of the paper files earlier this month.

According to public filings describing the NAB’s visits to the commission, Smith and his colleagues told the commissioners Tuesday that the broadcast industry remains fully opposed to placing the public political ad data online. It also floated a couple of options for watering down the proposed rule.

One was to begin with a “pilot project” before requiring online disclosure. Another would limit information posted online to aggregate data rather than the details about ad rates and purchases that are reported in the paper files. Under this plan, stations would continue to keep the full itemized data in paper files for public inspection.

The NAB has raised the specter of “the market-distorting effects of creating anonymous accessibility to the commercially sensitive information included in the political file.”

In meetings with FCC members this week, Smith emphasized “that the potential harm to TV broadcasters of placing specific rate information, including the lowest unit rate information that stations must, by law, afford to political candidates, in an anonymously accessible database was real and could place broadcasters at a significant competitive disadvantage versus other video providers that would not have a similar requirement.”

The law states that broadcasters must give political candidates the lowest rates for the same class and length of ad that they offer other buyers. (This does not apply to outside groups like super PACs.)

"Sure, all this is a public record, and you can come to the station and get it,” David Oxenford, a Washington attorney who represents various broadcasters, told ProPublica. “But you're not publishing it in such a way that everybody in the world can find out what your lowest rate is.”

Oxenford offered a hypothetical case in which an ad buyer for Coca-Cola in New York wants to buy ad time at a station in South Dakota. The ad buyer could theoretically send an agent to check the paper political file at the station for the lowest rates but in practice would not, he argued.

“Once [the political ad prices] are online and can be searched anywhere in the country, the broadcaster has essentially told everyone in the world what their lowest rate is for a spot on the station,” he said.

Advocates of putting the political files online don’t buy it.

"I would be more willing to take that argument at face value if this material hadn’t been public for so long," said Corie Wright, senior policy counsel for the pro-disclosure group Free Press. Wright said Free Press volunteers visiting stations have been told of broadcasters going to competitors’ offices to get copies of the public political files and thus the rate information.

The dispute has attracted attention in Congress. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and several other Senate Republicans sent a letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski earlier this month complaining of the "imposition of burdensome new rules on broadcasters,” Communications Daily reported.

The letter also pointed to the concern that “providing data on the availability and pricing of airtime will provide their competitors with real-time access to proprietary information and could potentially lead to anticompetitive practices." 

Advocates for online disclosure say resistance to the new rule is consistent with the industry’s longstanding anti-regulation posture.

"Over the last 20 to 25 years, broadcasters have been very successful in deregulating their industry,” said Wright. “They are nervous any time the trajectory goes in the opposite direction. It's kind of like the camel's nose under the tent."

elizabeth allen

April 13, 2012, 3:33 p.m.

But of course they are. Why do you think we have nothing but the Campaign delivered to us a the NEWS of the day. Meanwhile if you want real news you have to search everywhere but NBC, ABC, CNN, Faux, MSNBC, and Disney. They are getting the benefit of the over one billion that will be spent in this “election”? Democracy is over my friends, we have a corporate owned news network system that keeps all the information we need to make informed decisions from us, while these networks rake in billions and dont want to say WHO they got it from. When the government, corporations and media work as one…its called fascism…which is what America has become.

Mitch McConnell’s comment is ludicrous and comes from someone without a clue as to how easy it would be to put this information online. He needs to be reminded that we, at least in theory, own the airwaves and only loan them out to these broadcasters. The FCC needs to man up and take the public’s side for once.

David Robinette

April 13, 2012, 6:12 p.m.

WHY is it always a Republican who is helping businesses avoid or delay doing what’s right? I think I see a pattern developing…

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” - President Abraham Lincoln. Thank you.

You have to give the right - the so-called “conservatives” - credit; strategically speaking, their tactics were masterful. 

Corrupt the Republicans first and sufficient to enforce America’s addiction to oil, have their own man ride the consequential and wholly artificial energy-related economic shocks into the White House, slide Murdoch and Fox in with some dual-citizenship wizardry in order to capitalize on the blind faith the American people had/have in “the fourth estate” (as a consequence of such Americans of honor as Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, and John Chancellor), use the increased liquidity Reagan and the Republicans gifted them with via “flood-up/trickle-down” economics and their ability to levy private taxes on energy to continue the corruption of Congress and begin buying control of American media…

And, of course, their increasing control of the other two branches of government gave them the ability to corrupt the Supreme Court - so setting up Citizens United and creating this current, horribly ludicrous situation wherein the right/0.01% can pay themselves to subvert democracy to their own ends.

It never would have worked, of course, except there were still so many Americans around who had fought in or lost relatives defending democracy and the American people - to include that 0.01%.  So very many lost…first during World War II, then Korea, then Viet Nam.  So many sacrificed so much for the ideal that is America...but those sacrifices, being shared among so many, created false assumptions of honor among all Americans, and so worked to blind the many to what the few are capable of. 

While their numbers dwindle, I fear that there are still too many of the many who have not recognized - who cannot accept - the possibility that democracy, the American people, and the United States of America could and is being betrayed from within.

What the right - the 0.01% - have done wasn’t really even “hidden”; rather, year after year the right came up with some new way to “Divide, and conquer.”.  On top of which their increasing control of media and, now, “Citizens United” have yielded them the ability to lie the truth out of history - for the memories of the American people have proven to be susceptible to manipulation.

The premier example of the malleable nature of American memory?  We just had a Republican President who lied America into war - murdering thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis - while presiding over the biggest financial scam and causing the second worst economic disruption in American history!

Yet the newly appointed Republican candidate isn’t polling negative numbers, let alone being rode out of America on a rail.

el Garee~ says-
John, please go back to school or do something else. Quick! Lincoln’s G’Burg address has no relevance here except as out of context rhetoric.

It should be noted that these same ‘broadcasters’ promulgate all sorts of other trash on the video toilets of america. Infomercials, ambulance chaser lawyer ads, cheesy furniture and bogus debt reduction schemes, et al.

Given this unregulated advert field of dreams, why in hell would they have to provide political data as opposed to researching the validity of a toyota ad, refinance offering or a for profit college that has paralegal programs that are ‘govt financed’.

Get real. This is the US free market and welcome to it. What was the mythical ‘American dream’ is gone.

“When television is good, nothing is better. When it’s bad, nothing is worse.” - Newton N. Minow

@el Garee:  Is a rather large difference between ye olde shady car dealer and politics, don’t you think? 

I’ve not as yet met a car dealer who can lie America into war, deprive the American people of their livelihoods, and transform “the American Dream” into the nightmare existence of a third-world country.

Which, judging by all available evidence, is “the Republican Dream”.

As the networks continue to lose audience and influence are the same people here who are demanding online disclosure of broadcasters going to demand the same from all cable,google,facebook and whatever other new media comes down the pike?  And since many of these entities are not dependent on a license from the “GOVERNMENT” they can’t have a gun put to their head so the what?

@bill:  The primary difference between the television media and the internet?

Somebody foxes up a story on the internet, you can nearly instantaneously post a comment that says “That’s a blankety-blank lie - and here [insert URL here] is the proof!”  You don’t get equal airtime with TV talking heads no matter how much the friction caused by the lies tumbling from their lips super-heats the air (a potential contributor to anthropomorphic global warming in the case of right-wing PACs and television media). 

Further, should an internet entity choose to censor otherwise rational, substantiated comments that refute their assertions, you can also make that fact known literally “around the world” nearly instantaneously.

When the television media lies, currently it is up to other media sources (and those which do, in a revealing commentary, are now almost always internet-centric) to invest the time and money in informing the public of the fact.  The television networks simply don’t devote much if any time to holding each other accountable “during prime time”. 

So the feedback loop - the ability to hold liars accountable in televised media through peer/audience pressure - is nearly non-existent - which I would normally call “collusion”, except there is at least one television media source that lies so very much that they not only have to occasionally make a public note of the fact that only a very small percentage of their broadcasts are “news” while all of the rest is “editorial” and “opinion”, the reality is that any other televised network that wished to hold them accountable would have to devote hours of programming to the task…and perhaps an entirely new network.  Very expensive, that.

The final kicker is the televised networks - and the PACs and SuperPACs - who take advantage of the fact that only honor binds them to the truth (no barrier at all, for so many of them) typically have audiences that are willing to assume “It must be true - they said it on TV!”.  That audience segment doesn’t know to double-check what they are told when the reality is the additional effort became mandatory in 1985…if not before.

In my opinion.

The Republican party should rename themselves the “American Fascist Party” because that’s what they are.

The names of all individuals and organizations involved in the production and dissemination of political ads should be made public.  Often these ads are difficult to interpret because of ambiguous generalizations as well as deliberate distortions and misinformation.  Equally unacceptable.are those ads whose ‘information” at the bottom is illegible because of font size and color. What could be more spurious than objections related to pricing and “competitive advantage”?

We need to know who is pulling the strings.

@Jane - me, I look at it a little differently…I also want to know who is lying to me and who is funding those lies, because I’ll be damned if I will buy that individual’s/corporation’s products and services and so pay for the oppression of myself, my children, and the American people.

The way it stands now, the anonymity forces me to unwittingly buy the enemy the ammunition that they’re going to use to hurt the United States of America.

(To which I would add:  After 40 years of the Republican-enforced addiction to oil and the consequential transfer of American wealth to the Islamic OPEC nations where that wealth was promptly put to use arming the nations that threaten Israel and nations we were forced into war with and to provide the funding for terrorist attacks to include 9/11, I’m just a little tired of unknowingly funding Republican/rightie attempts to destroy democracy and the United States of America.)

Behind Closed Doors,can not see

The Supreme Court has become totally corrupt because of the rightwingers.

The last time we were attacked by a country was 1941.  Why have we chosen to go to war so many times since that war ended? The RepubliCON-artists criticized Obama for withdrawing from Iraq and they don’t want us to ever leave Afghanistan. Part of the problem is that the RepubliCONS love having our troops fighting wars. Patriotic? Of course not! Benefits were reduced 3 times during Bush’s 8 years.

There’s a certain audacity to holding hearings on transparency in private that appeals to me.  Also,

“Once [the political ad prices] are online and can be searched anywhere in the country, the broadcaster has essentially told everyone in the world what their lowest rate is for a spot on the station,” he said.

This is the argument I’ve been waiting for:  The media wants the right to scam its advertising clients, like Coca-Cola doesn’t already know exactly how much they can expect to pay for a spot anywhere in the country.  Heck, do we think those local, moronic “cash for gold” commercials aired for a penny more than rock-bottom, with those production values?

Not that it matters.  The prices (whatever they are) are clearly too high.  I’m in a major market, and many of the commercials I see are station identification, often several in the same break.  Presumably, these are unsold slots, because I actually already know what channel I’m watching and what network it’s part of, thanks to the “bug” logo at the bottom of the screen 24/7.  I can also guess most of the rest of the programming schedule, because most schedules are basically indistinguishible outside of prime time.

It’s hard to watch, and not just because the programming and commercials stink.  I want television to survive and succeed, because there’s room for curated, non-interactive content.  But they’re fighting the wrong war, trying to bluff their remaining customers into paying more while airing the cheapest, least-interesting programming.

Let’s establish a 99 PERCENT TAX on political advertisements, to be assessed against the big PAC ad buys only.

The proceeds can be used to solve some of the real problems we are faced with.

@bicbic:  Rather see lying to the public and/or funding the propagation of those lies criminalized.  No jail time, though - just confiscation of all assets and a television show wherein they are taught to survive as the other 1% must.

I bet it would get very good ratings.

What a great site. I think I’ve died and gone to heaven. A site that actually has facts and figures and real people.

James M. Fitzsimmons

April 19, 2012, 6:29 a.m.

Yes, let’s have full disclosure. Reporters and pundits also post their political affiliations and ideology on each article or op/ed piece produced.

@James M. Fitzsimmons:  Oh, but that would hurt the power behind “the right”...because they have no loyalty to anything but themselves and their lust for wealth and power, they must purchase loyalty - and purchased loyalty is a frangible commodity…it can shatter under the the weight of either a better offer or public exposure.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Free the Files

Free the Files

Outside groups are spending hundreds of millions to influence the coming elections. Help unlock outside spending by "freeing" political ad buys from television stations in swing markets.

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