Journalism in the Public Interest

Broadcasters’ Last-Ditch Push to Hide Political Ad Data

Media giants are scrambling to water down a proposed FCC rule on disclosure that will be voted on Friday.

(File photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

With the Federal Communications Commission set to vote Friday on whether to require broadcasters to post political ad data online, the industry has been scrambling to water down the proposed rule.

The data is currently available only on paper at TV stations. We've been tracking the flurry of lobbying against the rule by big media companies, including the owners of many of the nation's largest news outlets. In the latest development, Communications Daily reported earlier this week that the FCC has become more receptive to the industry's attempts to soften the proposed rule.

The exact contents of the rule may be in flux until the vote on Friday, and we won't get a look at the text of the rule itself until sometime after the vote. Those who follow the FCC closely say that while we will likely know the broad outlines of the rule on Friday, the exact text is sometimes not completed and released until days or even weeks after a vote.

But because the FCC might water down the rule, it's a good time to take a look at exactly what the broadcasters' counterproposal would mean for the public's access to the political ad data.

The FCC is made up of two Democrats who have spoken broadly in favor of the proposed rule and one Republican who has criticized it. Citing unnamed "agency and industry officials," Communications Daily reported Monday (subscription required) that the two Democrats appeared to be showing some give on the crucial issue of whether broadcasters would have to put all — or just some — political ad data online.

"[T]hey said the potential for changes appears higher now than it did earlier last week, when [FCC Chairman Julius] Genachowski seemed set against any modifications," the publication reported.

In a speech at the annual tradeshow of the National Association of Broadcasters in Las Vegas last week, Genachowski appeared to stand firm against the industry's lobbying. He answered the industry's arguments one by one and decried its stance "against transparency and against journalism."

But Mignon Clyburn, the other Democratic commissioner, reportedly struck a "conciliatory note" in her remarks on the political ad files at the NAB show. "I can affirm to you that in terms of this process, this office is still open for engagement," she said, according to Communications Daily.

Republican Robert McDowell has echoed the industry's opposition to the proposed rule.

Lobbying disclosures filed with the FCC this week outline a final proposal written by a Washington attorney for a group that includes the National Association of Broadcasters, Fox, CBS, NBC, ABC, Univision and other stations. (Here is the full list.)

The proposal represents a last-ditch bid by the industry to undermine the rule, which is expected to pass in some form. Just a couple of weeks ago, NAB chief Gordon Smith, a former senator, visited the FCC to express the industry's flat opposition to any online disclosure rule.

Under the industry's proposal, broadcasters would post to an FCC website the aggregate amount of each purchase of political ads instead of the full itemized information that is currently in the paper files.

Advocates of full online disclosure argue the broadcasters' proposal is lacking in a few key respects.

The Public Interest Public Airwaves Coalition pointed out in a April 19 letter to the FCC chairman that the broadcasters' proposal would conceal "more detailed information about how much stations charge for the purchase of political advertising time, as well as whether a station accepted or rejected a request to purchase time, the date and time a political advertising message aired, and the class of time purchased."

Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, told ProPublica that the full, itemized data are important in assessing whether broadcasters are abiding by rules requiring that they offer candidates the cheapest rates and equal opportunity to buy ad time.

"Only by looking at each ad request can you determine whether they are abiding by the statute," said McGehee, whose organization is a member of the public interest coalition.

Jonathan Blake, the Covington & Burling attorney who authored the broadcasters' proposal, declined to comment.

Corie Wright, senior policy counsel at Free Press, wrote the public interest coalition's letter. She told ProPublica that information on the so-called disposition of political ad requests — that is, whether a station rejected a candidate's request to purchase time — "is extremely important because it enables communities to assess whether broadcasters are using their government-granted monopoly of public spectrum to slant democratic outcomes in favor of one side of an issue over another."

McGehee, of the Campaign Legal Center, said she won't be surprised if the FCC bows to the broadcasters' demands.

"I never underestimate the power of the broadcasters," she said. "They have a pretty powerful combination. They are big political givers. They are right there in the communities of the members of Congress who are loathe to offend their broadcasters."

“...the exact text is sometimes not completed and released until days or even weeks after a vote.”

A decision on transparency where even the decision-makers don’t yet know what they’re deciding, that really has to be eligible for some sort of high level irony award.

And the government has the nerve to complain that we mere mortal voters aren’t educated on the issues…

“We have to pass the bill to know what is in it”

I don’t think this surpasses that level of irony by a long shot.

Gary from Jersey

April 26, 2012, 1:19 p.m.

I hate to nitpick (but I do it all the time), but “data” is the plural of “datum,” so The data is currently available should read “The data are.”

That is all.

Why worry. Mignon Clyburn must be immensely qualified to rule on this. After all, she’s the daughter of a Congressman which couldn’t have anything to do with her appointment , do you think?

You can watch everything online now without the ads even though the ads are creeping in now. Do as I did and stop watching TV. You don’t miss anything and we can get back to the business of electing a real President instead of having our minds twisted by the lies that big money buys. Dump TV.

I am no fan of the mainstream media, but I’m with them on this one. Simply as a matter of free speech, broadcasters should be able to sell ads to whomever they want without having to disclose who, what, when, and how much.

DH, they’re already restricted in what they can charge and can’t reject the request.  On top of that, the commercials they broadcast, by definition, aren’t secret.  And don’t forget that they already have this data recorded and have an obligation to make the information available to the public.

This doesn’t affect their right to speech any more than the existing regulation.

If you’d rather go the long way around instead, the clear corrupting influence campaign advertising has on elections (specifically, that whoever spends the most money wins) makes it a “yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded movie house,” non-protectable form of expression, if need be.

A closer analogy would be that you can’t broadcast a recommendation to buy stock that you own and want to sell without filing a ton of disclosure paperwork to ensure you’re not just running a scam.  Likewise with the various disclosure notices of “Company X is the parent company of this station” when a story on Company X comes up.

The broadcasters PAY A YEARLY FEE to USE the airwaves and ASSIGNED FREQUENC(Y/IES) alloted them.  The public files are just that…if the public is interested ENOUGH to get off their dead-@5535 and come to a TV or Radio Station to even look at the public file, then it shows that they are interested in their community.  Arm-chair politicing is an annoyance at best and down-right obnoxious at its worst.  And to leave it to arm-chair bloggers, let alone policy-wonks that seem to THINK they know better than everyone around them is the epitomy of chutzpah.  If it’s NECESSARY to see if some “criminality” is being committed, come to the offices and dig it up.  It’s in the file.  But to put everything out there for anyone/everyone to nit-pick through and to then falsely accuse the entity of “perseaved wrongs” without reason is no way to do business, let alone private business.  As it is, the “public airwaves” are a mis-nomer at best.  Not just anyone can get on the air because they think they can…ask any “pirate radio” operator you’ve heard about.  You need to kiss a few attorneys before you even get to fill out a request for a channel assignement…then after you file, it’s all downhill after that.  Any true broadcaster knows that.  It’s the rest of the idiots out there that think it’s a gold-mine to pilfer from.  Far from it.  But, don’t let the politicians let you believe for one minute that the golden goose isn’t quite dead.  Until the day that they get to control all the media, there will be, as there should be, voices free enough to tell everyone the truth…even if they don’t like the message, let alone, the messenger itself.  Once they get the free OTA broadcasters out of the way, the only message you’re going to hear is the one you have to pay for…and guaranteed, the only one you’ll pay for is what THEY want you to hear…nothing else will get on the internet unless they, that have the Gold and the Rule, rule otherwise.

What’s the problem? If CNN can determine who appears on their televised debates by removing candidates from their polling, and then claiming those that were removed didn’t get enough polling support to be included, why should they want, or be required to fully disclose how much they charge for ads, or which ads have been refused. Makes perfect sense to me.

Perhaps a little off point, but has anyone noticed the piece in today’s Huffington Post where Nancy Pelosi, of all people, has said she would support the Simpson Bowles cuts to Social Security and Medicare!
What’s going on?

Stephanie Palmer

April 29, 2012, 5:27 a.m.

Why is this stuff hidden? I use this information to determine which companies not to do business with?  The American people need to know who puts this money up. That way we can make an informed decision. I would hardly chose to do business with any company that lobbies against my best interests. Why would I want to enrich them?

When is doing the right thing going to trump making decisions based on the desires of “pretty big givers?”

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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