FCC moves ahead with plans to require full disclosure for broadcast advertisers

Josh Peterson Tech Editor
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Political pressure by liberal media reform groups is seen by some conservatives as the reason for last week’s FCC vote to seek public comment on proposed full disclosure rules.

The rules would require political groups with broadcast advertising to disclose the sources of their funding. Conservatives have expressed concern over the possible effects of the FCC’s proposal on broadcasters and the additional compliance costs for campaigns.

Media Access Project filed a petition with the FCC in March to promote full disclosure by corporations with regard to campaign ads. MAP’s intentions are decidedly one-sided: the advocacy group is involved with several ‘media reform’ projects, including Free Press’ net neutrality project “Save the Internet” and the Media and Democracy Coalition.

Susan Crawford, a law professor at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo Law School, described the petition as the reason for the FCC’s decision in a recent op-ed supporting full disclosure. Crawford also wrote that the regulations would be a direct response to the 2010 Citizens United v FEC ruling by the Supreme Court.

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps — condemned by Tennessee Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn for his “collusion” with Free Press on net neutrality regulations — was the one commissioner who “understands the case for action,” Crawford wrote.

“The fissures in our democracy will continue to widen if big money retains its unchecked influence in our elections,” said Copps.

In the Citizens United v FEC Supreme Court ruling, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.”

The FCC’s joint study with the Knight Foundation, released in June 2011, concluded that full funding disclosure would not contradict the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case.

“The Court found that disclosure does not prevent political expression and thus does not violate the First Amendment,” wrote Steve Waldman, the report’s author.

Meanwhile, campaign finance reform hawks have noticeably doubled their efforts to make their voice heard this holiday season by mounting indirect political pressure. MSNBC host Dylan Ratigan, self-anointed Occupy Wall Street evangelist, recently lobbied Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin with concerns about campaign finance reform.  Ratigan presented a petition for his organization, the “Get Money Out Foundation.” While Ratigan’s foundation and Occupy Wall Street are not necessarily connected, a recurrent battle cry of the protests is campaign finance reform.

Bradley Smith, president of the Center for Competitive Politics, told TheDC that while disclosure can certainly be a good thing, it is not always true that more is better: “There’s no evidence that the voting public needs or wants broadcast stations’ political files, which are already public information, to be available instantly on-line.”

Critical of the FCC’s proposal, Smith said that “it sounds easy, but for many stations in an election year, if you try to require some real time or very short tine web disclosure, you’re looking at substantial cost because the ad bookings, changes, and cancellations are very frequent.”

“That cost will get added to the cost of political ads, and therefore get added to the cost of campaigns,” said Smith. “The information here is already available to the public, and the question is whether it is worth another $15 million or more in compliance costs – which will ultimately be campaign costs — to make it available a bit more rapidly.”