Moyers and Company: Who Is Paying For Political Ads? We Still Have No Idea


Of 1,220 disclosures to the FCC made by television stations in battleground states, only 65 percent were complete, and many were inaccurate, according to a new analysis by the Campaign Legal Center. The group is filing a complaint with the FCC today, asking the agency to do something about this flouting of its own rules.

The Campaign Legal Center found, for example, that several television stations in Wisconsin, including ABC, CBS and Fox affiliates, broadcast ads by the Chamber of Commerce supporting incumbent Republican Sen. Ron Johnson. But the group claimed its ads were not of national importance, and the television stations, it seems, were happy enough to not challenge that assertion, take the money and run — even though Johnson is running for a federal office in a contest that could determine which party controls the US Senate next year.

The effects of failing to comply with seeming legal technicalities can be profound. When stations fail to document this information in the forms they submit to the public via the FCC’s website, they make it easier for special interests to anonymously influence an election’s outcome. Whether an innocuously named group recommending a lawmaker’s environmental record is backed by an environmental group or an industry trade association, for instance, might make a difference to how voters interpret the information.

The Campaign Legal Center also highlighted a station that did try to do the right thing, up to a point — an NBC affiliate, WLWT, in Cincinnati, Ohio. But when WLWT pushed super PACs buying ads on its airwaves to give the names of their executives, the groups simply refused. And with that, the station’s responsibility was done. The FCC only requires that the stations “use reasonable diligence” to get names from advertisers. If the advertisers refuse in the face of that diligence, the ad can still air.

Another issue that complicates these disclosures: Broadcasters aren’t required to use a standard form. “When you look at all these different forms, it’s very hard to make a comparison. It’s apples and oranges,” said Meredith McGehee, Policy Director of the Campaign Legal Center. Her organization, she said, would like to see the FCC order stations to use one standard form.

Better yet, McGehee said, the FCC could require groups that buy political ads to disclose not just their executive membership, but the source of their funding. Just as political candidates say at the end of advertisements that they “approve this message,” billionaires and corporations — many of whom fund political campaign advertising by channeling it through nonprofit groups and LLCs with anodyne names like “Fighting for Ohio” — would also have to make their names publicly known.

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