Common Cause Interns

Broadcasters try to corrode disclosure for political ads

By Jack Mumby

A group of television broadcasters petitioned the Federal Communications  Commission to relax disclosure requirements for political advertisements. Information about who is purchasing advertisements, and how many, is already  available to the public, but only if they visit the station themselves. The new requirements mandate that the records instead be publicly searchable on the internet.

The principal argument against disclosure raised by the broadcasters is that making ad buy information publicly available is an “anti-competitive” practice that would “disrupt markets”, by allowing stations to learn their competitors rates. However, the FCC rejected this line of reasoning in April, as preexisting disclosure requirements meant that such information could already be accessed, just not online.

This obviously faulty line of reasoning advocated by the broadcasters indicates that they are less concerned with hiding their activities from other businesses than they are with hiding them from the public. If advertising information were made fully transparent, it would be far easier for regulators and advocates to expose conflicts of  interest between a station’s desire to please advertisers and the news media’s obligation to report on stories objectively.

Broadcasters have attacked the disclosure provision from other angles as well; last Wednesday, a House subcommittee passed a measure to defund the FCC initiative. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) has donated thousands of dollars to legislators associated with the initiative, including $7,500 to Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO), chair of the subcommittee and the bill’s sponsor. The NAB has also sued the FCC in federal court to prevent the requirement from taking effect in July.