Resistance to FCC broadcast disclosure rules for political ads puzzles advocates

Josh Peterson Contributor
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The FCC is now seeking public comments on a newly proposed rule that would require broadcasters to make their funding information available online after a backlash that proponents of the regulation find confusing.

Advocates of the rule say they are puzzled over the resistance the rule is receiving from TV news organizations. “To Friends who work in tv news; why are tv news organizations trying to block political transparency?” asked Steven Waldman, a former aide to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, in a Facebook post on Friday.

“NBC, CBS, abc, fox, Hearst, Gannet etc fighting FCC very modets plan to put the political file–already ‘public’ but in filing cabinets–on the Internet,” said Waldman. “Any idea why the news organizations are opposing transparency when tv reporters (appropriately) demand it of public officials?”

The rule was first petitioned for by progressive media advocacy group Media Access Project as a response to the landmark 2010 Supreme Court case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which allowed corporations and unions more leeway in how they contribute funds to candidates and political causes.

Critics of the proposed rule view it as impractical and costly to abide by in an election year. Bradley Smith, President for the Center for Competitive Politics, told TheDC in November 2011 that there was no evidence that the voting public wanted or required such disclosure by broadcasters and news organizations. Smith also said it will increase costs for advertisers and broadcasters because “ad bookings, changes and cancellations are frequent.”

“That cost will get added to the cost of political ads, and therefore get added to the cost of campaigns,” Smith told TheDC. “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.”

Harry A. Jessell of TVNewsCheck.com, a broadcasters news site, recently wrote in February, ”

Jessell contended that advocates of the rule — like Waldman — were not, however, after transparency, but something else.

“What they want are statistics,” said Jessell. “They want to be able to state authoritatively that TV stations on average devote just X% of their air time to covering news or local public affairs or some other type of programming they believe is in the public interest.”

While disclosure is not necessarily a bad thing – as Smith had previously told TheDC – Jessell contended that the newly proposed rules would enable regulators to require broadcasters to fill quotas of certain content, or risk losing their licenses.

“A quota is nothing but a mandate,” wrote Jessell. “It’s the federal government telling stations what programming they must air, and that slams right into broadcasters’ First Amendment rights.”

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