Broadcasters’ Last-Ditch Push To Hide Political Ad Data


by Justin Elliott, ProPublica


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.”

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