Journalism in the Public Interest

Meet the Media Companies Lobbying Against Transparency

Corporations that own some of the country’s biggest news outlets are fighting an FCC measure to post political ad data on the Internet.

Dozens of televisions display a political advertisement with the image of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Companies that own the biggest journalistic outlets in the country are fighting a measure to post political ad data online. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

 News organizations cultivate a reputation for demanding transparency, whether by suing for access to government documents, dispatching camera crews to the doorsteps of recalcitrant politicians, or editorializing in favor of open government.

But now many of the country’s biggest media companies, which own dozens of newspapers and TV news operations, are flexing their muscle in Washington in a fight against a government initiative to increase transparency of political spending.

The corporate owners or sister companies of some of the biggest names in journalism — NBC News, ABC News, Fox News, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Politico, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and dozens of local TV news outlets — are lobbying against a Federal Communications Commission measure that would require broadcasters to post political ad data on the Internet.

As we have recently detailed, political ad data is public by law but not easy to get because it is kept only in paper files at each station. The FCC has proposed fixing that by requiring broadcasters to post online the details of political ad purchases, including the identity of the buyer and the price.

(ProPublica has been inviting readers and other journalists to send in the files to be posted as part of our Free the Files project.)

Over the past few months, several major media companies have dispatched top executives or outside lobbyists to the FCC to oppose the proposed rule or to push a watered-down version, disclosure filings show. (The FCC will vote on the issue April 27.)

Among them are:

(ProPublica has published stories in partnership with many of these news organizations, and has an agreement with NBC's owned and operated TV stations for pre-publication access to our news apps and a contribution by NBC to ProPublica.)

In a speech this week at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski excoriated the broadcasters as working “against transparency and against journalism.”

The industry’s opposition to the transparency proposal has sometimes been heated. In filings submitted to the FCC in January and March, Allbritton Senior Vice President Jerald Fritz raised the specter of “’Soviet-style standardization” of ad sales if political ad files are required to be put online in a single format.

In a February meeting with the FCC, Walt Disney executives complained about the “logistics and burden” of putting the political ad information online.

That month, executives from Disney, NBC and News Corp. argued in a meeting with FCC officials that posting the political ad data would allow “competitors in the market and commercial advertisers [to] anonymously glean highly sensitive pricing data.”

Television stations must by law offer political candidates the lowest rates on ads. Broadcasters have argued that making this information available online — and not just at stations — would hurt their ability to negotiate with other advertisers.

Advocates for the online disclosure rule have countered that the political ad information is already public by law and the measure would simply make the existing disclosure rules relevant for the Internet age. Advocates have also pointed out that keeping paper files in electronic form should actually be more efficient for stations.

Allbritton, NBC and Walt Disney did not respond to requests for comment on the FCC chairman’s charge that they have positioned themselves “against transparency and against journalism.” News Corp. declined to comment.

Some media companies have also pushed a watered-down proposal to post only some of the public political ad data, and to put it up on individual station websites instead of a central FCC website.

Washington lawyers representing the other companies fighting the rule — Barrington Broadcasting, Belo, Cox, Dispatch, E.W. Scripps, Gannett, Hearst, Meredith Broadcasting, Post-Newsweek Stations, Raycom Media and Schurz Communications — lobbied FCC officials in February, March and again this week.

The group suggested that instead of putting the full, itemized political ad data online, stations would post aggregate data once a week.

"What we were saying is, if you want the public to be informed about what's being bought at what price, maybe there's a simpler way to do it," Mary Jo Manning, an attorney representing the group, told ProPublica. "Transparency is giving people information that is useful."

But when the FCC pressed the group for details on its plan, the stations said they opposed posting even the aggregate data in a single format prescribed by the FCC. They also opposed posting the data on a central FCC website, saying they wanted to post the limited data only on the stations’ own websites. If enacted, both of those stances would make it more difficult to get and analyze the data.

Since there is a one-week sunshine period ahead of FCC votes, today is the last day that interested parties will be able to lobby the commission before its public meeting April 27. 

It’s worth mentioning that, while the files are kept in paper form, we’ve heard from several people (in the articles and comments) that the data is already in electronic form prior to that.  So submitting it to the FCC for publication is LESS of a burden than printing and filing it.

Also, as a lawyer, Ms. Manning should know that what’s “useful” is different for different people.  A lawyer will find certain aspects of content more interesting than a political reporter or an economist.

Regarding the list of lobbyists, is there intent to expand this program beyond broadcast television?  I can’t help notice that many represent primarily newspapers and cable TV, which is a different animal (no, I don’t mean Fox, primarily).  Maybe it’s just blind solidarity.

I’m loving your publication but in the name of transparency will you respond to this?...   Thanks.

Interesting i just posted a link requesting some transparency in Propublica (Per article there are some and apparently my post was held for “moderation”.  Hmm?  I wonder what this means.  There are some financial backers of this organization that have a controversial past for seeking to silence the press.  Just sayin’

Blythe, looked at the link and simply don’t understand the relevance to ProPublica.  Can you explain a bit?

Stephanie Palmer

April 20, 2012, 2:42 p.m.

Gee, more outfits voting against my interests. I guess I’ll just add them to the list of businesses to avoid at all costs. Oh well.  Not one of them does anything special that I can’t get anywhere else.

I was posting comments on the US department of Labor’s “Work in Progress” blog comment section where they were posting them in the begining and then stop posting them.I read every story and comment accordingly and i have also talked to the department of labor office of public affairs who handle this blog and they were helpful in making sure i was within DOL guidelines now they do not return my calls.Of course they were well aware of me for i have been posting alot of comments about how patheticaly OSHA handled our whistleblower case.I was even posting on the blog how a top offical at DOL pulled me into a side office to provide me with inside information that only OSHA would have known about the case and the info was telling me that DOL suspected that our employer was lying to there federal investigators.I used that info on 14 diffrent time lined dates that prooved with out a doubt they were lying and on 6 of those dates they faxed me information with cover sheets with ther names on them that hung themselves all this thanks to that DOL insider who tipped me off.They risked a disaster in a Sunoco refinery and DOL did nothing but attack us whistleblowers.So by DOL removing my comments on there blog is that a violation of transparency or a violation of my right to free speech?
Can someone at propublica answer this for me
Gregg S

Are there any major, or at least well-known, media outlets in favor?

Wow!  Link was not accurate in first post.  Weird.  Anyway here’s the appropriate link that questions Propublica’s interests.  Sorry for any confusion.

Corporations practicing hypocrisy. Corporations using lobbyist for their gain at the detriment of common people. WHAT A SURPRISE!!

Just tried to enter link to clarify earlier error in link but i’m in “moderation” limbo.  Apparently i’m unable to use the link so… why mainstream investigative journalism outfit propublica funded soros..  will work. Interesting perspective.  Sorry for earlier confusion.

Blythe, Thanks.  What you’re referring to is a piece on Glenn Beck’s site full of innuendo.  Here are a couple of key facts: our only funding, over five years, from one of George Soros’s foundations amounted to well than than 2% of our revenues during two of those years.  And more important, none of our Board members has any editorial involvement in our stories, or even any knowledge of what we publish before we do so.  Herbert Sandler is our Board chairman, but George Soros has never served on our Board.

Broadcasters us OUR airwaves and FCC works to serve We The People first, above all other concerns; thus, WE have the right to know and FCC has the duty to ensure that we do.

Why not drop the price requirement and remove the obstacle?  Pretty hard to argue against providing who bought the ad as opposed to what they paid for the ad.  Personally I don’t care what they paid I want to know who made the purchase.

One thing that has me mystified is why are all of these companies using typewriters when PC/Mac based word processors have been around since the early 90’s.  Wouldn’t they realize the cost savings by having everything in an electronic format prior to printing?

Re: “NBCUniversal, which is owned by Comcast and includes NBC News;”

Curious, that the 51% owner - Comcast - would merit a mention but not the 49% owner:  GE.

Gregg, you might want to give a call to…not the ACLU, probably, but your state equivalent (“Your-State Civil Liberties Union”).  At the very least, they’d know if there’s a way to escalate your issue with commenting or if it’s just an unfortunate matter of trying to keep on topic.

On the OSHA end, I don’t know who you’d be able to kick, though.  They’re notorious for ignoring whistleblowers and failing to protect them, and I don’t think I’ve heard about any group that oversees them or serves as a watchdog for them.

Maybe someone else will have better information, though.

The pricing excuse doesn’t fly. If it’s already in a public file what’s to stop anyone interested (companies and advertisers included) from getting that information in the first place? Nothing. And clearly they’re concerned with cost above all else, dreaded transparency included, so I doubt it’s a fraction as opaque to figure out cost as it is to access the information that’s being requested. Not that simple arguments like this have any effect on the discussion it seems.

Please fix: Under the list, the link for Cox Media Group goes to Belo. Thanks

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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