U.S. Senate: Democracy Groups Call on Senate Leaders to Stop House Attempt to Block Online Access to Broadcaster Public Files


Today, the Campaign Legal Center, along with seventeen other organizations, called on Senate appropriators to stop a House Appropriation subcommittee rider to block funding for a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulation that broadcasters post their public political files online.

“The rider on the House Appropriations bill is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to deny public access to public information,” said Meredith McGehee, Campaign Legal Center Policy Director.  “The FCC's new rule simply updates for the 21st Century laws that have been on the books for decades.  The Senate should stop this misguided effort in its tracks."

Last week a House Appropriations Subcommittee, on a party-line vote, attached a rider to the FY 2013 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill that would withhold funding for the implementation of a FCC regulation requiring broadcasters to post online requests made for political advertising time.  Under a decades-old statute, TV broadcasters must maintain files about requests for political advertising time, which includes information about when the spots aired, the rates charged, and the classes of time purchased.

However, broadcasters and their friends in Congress are fighting to maintain a 20th Century status quo that requires the public to travel to each station to view each and every “public” file to verify that broadcasters are meeting their legal and public interest obligations.  These obligations are ones that the broadcasters freely undertook in exchange for their free use of the publicly-owned airwaves.

The groups signing the letter along with the Legal Center include: Access Humboldt, Americans for Campaign Reform, Center for Creative Voices in Media, Center for Responsive Politics, Common Cause, Common Frequency, Democracy 21, Free Press, Media Action Center, National Alliance for Media Arts & Culture, Norman Lear Center, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism University of Southern California, OMB Watch, Public Citizen, Sunlight Foundation, Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of Florida, United Church of Christ, Office of Communications, Inc. and Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

The full text of the letter follows below.

June 13, 2012

The Hon. Daniel Inouye                                  The Hon. Thad Cochran
Chair, Appropriations Committee                 Vice Chair, Appropriations Committee
S128-Capitol                                                     S-146A Capitol
Washington, DC  20515                                 Washington DC  20515
The Hon. Richard Durbin                               The Hon. Jerry Moran
Chair, Subcommittee on Financial               Ranking Member, Subcommittee on
Services & General Government                   Financial Services & General Government
Dirksen 184                                                       Hart 125
Washington, DC  20515                                 Washington, DC  20515
Dear Sirs:
We the undersigned organizations strongly urge you to oppose any effort to include language in the FY 2013 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations measure that would block or hinder implementation of the new Federal Communications Commission rule requiring broadcasters to put their political files online.  Such a misguided measure was included as a rider in the companion measure recently passed by the House Subcommittee.
The Supreme Court in the Citizens United decision held that “transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.” The Court has specifically addressed the benefits of online access to such information, stating that “[w]ith the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters.”
To this end, the recent decision by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to require television licensees to post the information in their political file on the FCC’s website furthers these goals by increasing the availability and transparency of the political interests using the public airwaves to persuade the American electorate. It also brings broadcast recordkeeping practices into the 21st Century.
Because of the importance of these political records we are disappointed that the broadcast industry – which stands to make over $3 billion in political ads this election cycle – is actively opposing this important transparency initiative.
Broadcasters' complaints that the new rules are burdensome are misguided, if not nonsensical. The FCC has not required any new records or additional information collection from television broadcasters. It is simply requiring that broadcasters replace their existing paper records with electronic ones, a transition that will ultimately be more efficient and cost effective for broadcasters. Television stations already keep the vast majority of these records in electronic form, and currently must download and print out any such documents and organize them in their paper political files. In fact, the new online file rules actually diminish the recordkeeping burden on television broadcasters.
Likewise, broadcaster claims that political file information is proprietary are also unfounded. The laws that have been on the books for decades make clear that Congress intended the information in the political file – which includes requests for and purchases of political ads – to be made publicly available. Thus, the transition to an online public file will ensure that members of the public can enjoy fuller and more meaningful access to the broadcast records they already have a right to view.  That some broadcasters would in essence attempt to make it as difficult as possible for the public to access these records is inconsistent with their duties as licensees and trustees of the public airwaves.
The broadcast industry’s efforts to block what is otherwise a non-controversial, administrative procedure should be rejected. We urge Committee Members to oppose all efforts to place a rider on any appropriations measure that would delay or weaken the FCC’s common sense update of a regulation that moves television stations’ political files online.
Access Humboldt
Americans for Campaign Reform
Campaign Legal Center
Center for Creative Voices in Media
Center for Responsive Politics
Common Cause
Common Frequency
Democracy 21
Free Press
Media Action Center
National Alliance for Media Arts & Culture
Norman Lear Center, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
University of Southern California
OMB Watch
Public Citizen
Sunlight Foundation
Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of Florida
United Church of Christ, Office of Communications, Inc.
Wisconsin Democracy Campaign
cc:        Full Senate Appropriations Committee