Political Ad Transparency at Risk as Republicans and Special Interests Attack

6/12/2012

In April, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved reforms to modernize the disclosure requirements for broadcasters operating on the public airwaves. The rule will expose the influence of money in politics by making information about who is financing political advertising available online. However, the transparency rule is under attack: broadcasters quickly filed suit against the FCC, while House Republicans attached a policy provision to a spending bill that would block the rule from taking effect.

Opening the Files

To enable citizens to oversee the use of the public airwaves, broadcasters must disclose certain information about their programming and operations. Since 1965, broadcasters have maintained public inspection files with information on each station's license and ownership, compliance with FCC rules, programming, and political advertising.

However, the public files have only been available on paper in each station's studio, limiting access. To improve public access, the FCC passed a new rule on April 27 requiring TV stations to post their data to an online public database.

The information in the files on political advertising will allow the public to see who is purchasing political ads and how much they are paying for them. Ads by super PACs and other third-party organizations attempting to influence elections have ballooned in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in 2010.

That enormous influx of money in politics has made many Americans concerned about the integrity of the election process. Making ad spending more transparent would enable better analysis of its influence and options for reform, a first step in restoring the public’s trust.

Broadcasters adamantly opposed the rule, arguing that wider access to their ad rates could weaken their negotiating power with advertisers. (Campaigns typically pay the lowest rates for ad buys, but third-party organizations like super PACs can be charged commercial rates.) But the FCC is bound to protect the public interest, not broadcasters' profits.

Legislative Override Attempted

On June 6, the House Appropriations subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government marked up its funding bill for fiscal year (FY) 2013, which includes funding for the FCC. The subcommittee draft, introduced by Chair Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO), included a policy "rider" that would block the agency from applying the disclosure rule to information on political ads. Other information in the station public files would be unaffected and would go online as planned in the rule.

Republicans explained the move by criticizing the FCC rule as burdensome and intrusive – despite the facts that the files are already public and that online posting is expected to have minimal burden on broadcasters.

Appropriations committee ranking member Norm Dicks (D-WA) criticized the rider as kowtowing to the moneyed interests increasingly intervening in elections. "It looks like you're trying to cover up the fact that all these fat cats are coming in and putting all this money into these elections and they don’t want their names to be disclosed," said Dicks.

Subcommittee ranking member José Serrano (D-NY) sponsored an amendment to remove the rider, which was defeated on a party-line vote. Serrano vowed to continue efforts to strike the language, according to ProPublica.

The Senate is scheduled to mark up its version of the bill in subcommittee on June 12. The subcommittee has not yet released draft text of the bill.

Please take action and tell Congress to remove the rider so that we can see who is buying political ads on our airwaves.

Court Challenge

Broadcasters are also challenging the rule in court. On May 21, less than a month after the FCC finalized the new rule, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) filed suit to block it. The industry association argued that the rule is "arbitrary, capricious," and violates the First Amendment. The broadcasters did not explain their claims in their petition, but they have previously complained that the rule would make TV stations the only medium required to disclose their ad rates. The broadcasters also claim that the FCC lacks authority to bring the files online because Congress did not require the information to be posted on the Internet.

However, the FCC defended the rule, calling it a "common-sense update." Free Press, a nonprofit group that supports media reform, called the lawsuit "nothing more than an attempt by the NAB to stall an important and overdue transparency initiative" and said the FCC "is on firm legal ground."

Let's Move Forward

The FCC's rule should be the first step in a series of reforms to modernize its disclosure rules for the 21st century and our digital communications structure. But recalcitrant special interests and their defenders in Congress threaten to derail the process and leave the public with disclosure systems designed for an earlier generation of communications technology.

The American people deserve easy access to public information. Today, information on political ad spending is more critical than ever, as the influx of money in politics threatens to undermine honest democratic discourse.

Please tell Congress: We have a right to know who’s buying political ads on the public’s airwaves.

Image in teaser by flickr user LGEPR, used under a Creative Commons license.