FCC Has Failed to Protect Voters' Right to Know Who Is Behind Political Ads in Election 2016


New Report & FCC Complaint Highlight How Frequently Broadcast Stations Neglect to Collect and Report Political Ad Sponsors; Letter Deplores FCC’s Failed Promise for Aggressive Enforcement.  

The Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Sunlight Foundation and Benton Foundation today filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission urging the agency to take immediate action against WCPO-TV of Cincinnati for failure to comply with the longstanding public file requirements of Section 315 of the Communications Act. The complaint was accompanied by a letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, chastising the commission for doing “absolutely nothing” to enforce public file rules.

The groups are represented by the Institute for Public Representation of Georgetown University Law Center (IPR).    

“The public file requirements of the Communications Act play an important role in providing transparency in our electoral system, especially post-Citizens United,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center. “As the number of super PACs buying up television and radio airtime increases, the transparency of who is behind political ads is becoming increasingly murky. It is the FCC’s responsibility to ensure stations disclose information about who pays for advertisements. The FCC, in its failure to enforce laws that protect voters’ right to know, has clearly led broadcasters to freely ignore existing regulations with impunity.”

The letter from IPR on behalf of CLC, Common Cause, Sunlight Foundation and Benton Foundation reminds Chairman Wheeler about the commission’s “abject failure” to resolve 11 public file complaints pending since May 2014, despite his assurance that “We take political file complaints seriously and anticipate resolving these quickly.” The letter underscores that the law is intended to protect Americans’ right to know who is behind political ads and who is trying to persuade voters. 

Andrew Jay Schwartzman, Benton Senior Counselor at IPR, stressed, "It is regrettable that we have had to send this letter and a new complaint, but as the new report demonstrates, broadcasters are ignoring their duty to serve the public and the FCC has shown no interest in demonstrating that they face any consequences for their non-compliance."

“Holding broadcasters accountable for their political advertising disclosures is as important as food labeling,” said Benton Foundation Executive Director Adrianne B. Furniss. “Television stations have an essential public interest obligation to provide the public with information about who’s buying broadcast time. But this complaint demonstrates that broadcasters are not making the grade. The law demands that we get as much information about the TV ads that comes into our living rooms as the food that comes into our kitchens.”

Todd O’Boyle, program director for Common Cause’s Media and Democracy Reform Initiative, stated, “Secret money spending is out of control, and it leaves voters in the dark. It is past time that the FCC give the people the transparency they need and the law requires.”

The complaint against WCPO-TV, a Scripps Media, Inc. provides direct evidence of the FCC’s failures. The law requires that broadcasters upload a variety of information identifying the sponsor of political ads to an online public file, which is part of an FCC database. In 16 of 17 of the WCPO-TV’s files for non-candidate sponsors of national issue advertising, it did not provide information required by the Communications Act and FCC rules, undermining the transparency of the public filing system.

Today’s complaint is further corroborated by research conducted by CLC and released today in a new report, Who’s Behind That Political Ad?: The FCC’s Online Political Files and Failures in Sponsorship Identification Regulation. CLC examined 1,220 political files of TV broadcasters in key electoral battleground states – Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – and more than one-third (35 percent) of forms from these battleground states uploaded to the FCC’s database contained incomplete and inaccurate sponsorship identification.