Watchdogs File FCC Complaints Against TV Stations that Failed to Properly ID Political Ad Sponsors
Today, the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause and the Sunlight Foundation filed complaints at the Federal Communications Commission against two television stations that incorrectly identified front groups as the “true sponsors” of political advertisements, when they were in fact paid for by one individual. The complainants are represented by the Institute for Public Representation of Georgetown University Law Center.
In the complaint against WJLA, the Allbritton-owned ABC affiliate in Washington D.C., the groups cited two ads that aired in September and October 2013 that failed to properly identify environmentalist and former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer as the true sponsor. Instead, the ads were attributed to “NextGen Climate Action Committee.” At the time, NextGen was a super PAC founded and funded solely by Steyer.
The groups also filed a complaint against KGW in Portland, OR. In May 2014, KGW ran multiple ads attacking Senate candidate Monica Wehby and supporting Jason Conger. In FCC filings, the sponsor behind the ads is identified as the “American Principles Fund,” but, as the complaint details, hedge fund manager Sean Fieler is the true sponsor. Fieler is the founder of the American Principles Fund and the super PAC received nearly all of its funding from him.
The Communications Act and the FCC’s sponsorship identification rules require broadcasters to go beyond simply naming the entity that paid for an ad. In this case, both super PACs act essentially as personal advertising arms for the individuals behind them, and the stations failed to fully and fairly inform the public about who was attempting to influence them. Under the Communications Act, broadcasters are required to “exercise reasonable diligence” to obtain the information needed for proper sponsorship identification.
“The public has a right to know who is trying to buy their influence through political ads,” said Sean Vitka, Sunlight Foundation federal policy manager. “When political agendas are hidden behind seemingly innocuous super PACs, it’s the legal responsibility of the broadcasters to make sure that the public is properly informed. The FCC’s disclosure rules are one of the only ways to track this kind of activity, and the only way to track political ad spending in real time. We hope the FCC enforces its policies.”
“The stations are only too happy to cash the checks for these ads but cannot be bothered to actually comply with the law requiring them to make public the funders behind those ads,” said Meredith McGehee, Campaign Legal Center policy director. “Viewers deserve to know who is bankrolling the endless ads seeking to influence the outcome of elections and the law requires it. In case after case the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld disclosure laws and recognized the compelling public interest in voters knowing the source of the money behind the ads seeking to influence their votes.”
"Dark Money groups have polluted the airwaves the law for far too long. Transparency is essential,” said Todd O'Boyle, program director for media and democracy at Common Cause. "It's high time for the Commission to do its job and make political ad disclosure a reality."WJLA is currently owned by Allbritton Communications Company. The FCC is considering an application for sale of the station to Sinclair Broadcast Group, but the complaint is directed to Allbritton.