Journalism in the Public Interest

Media Companies Make Yet Another Push to Defang Transparency Rule

Broadcasters file a petition with the FCC to water down a new political ad disclosure rule.

A group of broadcasters are formally asking the Federal Communications Commission to soften a new rule requiring TV stations to put political ad data on the Internet.

Washington attorneys for a group of twelve companies filed a petition for reconsideration of the rule, which was approved by the FCC in April and requires online disclosure about political ad purchases by campaigns and outside groups like super PACs. The information, which includes who buys ads, for how much, and when they run, is currently open to the public but is available only on paper at individual stations.

With the broadcasters’ petition yesterday, the FCC will now have to consider whether to modify the transparency measure. The rule isn’t expected to go into effect until this summer at the earliest and the petition shouldn’t change that timeframe.

The disclosure rule is also the subject of a lawsuit by the National Association of Broadcasters and a defunding effort by Republicans in Congress.

The companies making yesterday’s request to water down the rule own TV stations and newspapers around the country. They are: Barrington Broadcasting Co., Belo Corp., Cox Media Group, Dispatch Broadcast Group, the E.W. Scripps Company, Gannett Broadcasting, Hearst Television, LIN Television Corporation, Meredith Broadcasting Group, Post-Newsweek Stations, Raycom Media, and Schurz Communications.

The argument advanced in the petition is one we heard earlier this year from broadcasters lobbying against the FCC disclosure rule: that making ad price information available online — even though it is already public on paper at stations — would hurt their business. The petition argues:

It is axiomatic that disclosure of price information is anti-competitive and disrupts markets — in this case, not only the local political advertising marketplace but also the local commercial advertising marketplace more generally, because stations’ political ad rates, by law, must be based on commercial advertising rates (and based on their most favorable rates during the political “windows”).

The FCC rejected this argument in its published April decision to put the political ad data online. The commission found that since the ad rate information has been available on paper for years, advertisers and station competitors already have access to it. The commission also concluded that the publication of rates on political ads would “not necessarily lead to marketplace distortions.”

The group of stations petitioning the FCC Monday also proposed an alternative to the new rule, one that is similar to a broadcaster proposal earlier this year. Under this scheme, stations would post online only aggregate information about money spent on ads, rather than the granular ad-by-ad information that the stations must maintain by law. The filing claims: “Our discussions with journalists confirm” that “journalists and scholars do not generally need or want spot-by-spot rate information.”

No such journalists or scholars are named.

Is the broadcasting industry really this worried that analysis of their data will indicate media bias in pricing or ad acceptance?  Is it really more expensive to make the data available online than to assist anyone who wanders in the front door?

I always thought journalism was about getting to the facts and making them public - why on earth are these companies saying they’re against that?

Oh no no FCC - cannot have the voters finding out where we put money.

“It is axiomatic that disclosure of price information is anti-competitive…”


Right.  Being able to shop around is terrible for competition.  Customers might be able to choose, and we wouldn’t want that.

It’s possible I’m mistaking the definition of “competition,” though.

As for the aggregate approach, please!  The very fact that this is based on “discussions with journalists” (undoubtedly theirs) shows that they’re just pushing for further elitism.  Keep the information private and only allow the public to learn what they think is worth teaching.

I certainly want spot-by-spot information.  There’s a wealth of real-time anthropological data in knowing who advertises during soap operas versus talk shows versus sitcoms versus reality shows versus news programs, and it’s a safe bet that no TV journalist is going to report on it without their handlers firing them.

It is not axiomatic that disclosure of price information is anti-competitive, it’s ridiculous. Every business knows what the competition is charging. The idea that disclosing prices disrupts markets is laughable.
Rich, powerful corporations don’t care about keeping secrets from each other, they care about keeping secrets from the public. Disclosing this information in a relevant way would infringe on their ability to accumulate more wealth and power, which is, of course, the only thing the rich and powerful truly fear. This is the only possible conclusion one can draw from journalists opposing transparency, as Stephen pointed out in his comment.

Disclosure of price information is anti-competitive? So Orbitz, Priceline, Travelocity, etc, are eliminating competition in the airline industry? Puh-leeeze!
Conflating “journalism” with “media” confuses the issue. “Journalism” has no part to play in broadcaster’s financial strategies - and since journalism is being replaced with “opinion panels”, plays a shrinking role in broadcast content.
Media doesn’t want to make it easy for us to check the data they’re already required to disclose. So they select what’s already digitized and hit the print button if anyone wanders in to ask for it.
So defunding will be the next most effective way to make sure the new requirements aren’t met. Does the FCC have any penalties in place for broadcasters who post fraudulent/incomplete/cherry-picked data?

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
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