Our nation’s broadcasters are just not happy that the public can now get a glimpse at some of their dirty little secrets – their political files. In fact, they are so unhappy that in comments filed earlier this week with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) urged the Commission to allow only local viewers to file complaints when broadcasters fail to fully comply with the law. The comments were filed in response to a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that proposes to require cable, satellite and radio to post online the political files they are required by law to maintain on paper.
The Notice was issued after a request from the Campaign Legal Center (CLC), along with Common Cause and the Sunlight Foundation, represented by the Institute for Public Representation of Georgetown Law Center (IPR).
The broadside against accountability comes in the wake of CLC and other groups filing complaints last year against 11 television stations after uncovering evidence that broadcasters in several markets were ignoring FCC requirements to disclose key information about the political ads that the TV stations were running. An examination of the online files of several stations revealed a variety of violations that spanned network affiliation, station ownership, political party affiliation, and extended from coast to coast. As Georgetown University Law Center’s IPR explained last May:
WDIV, an NBC affiliate in Detroit, among other things, failed to upload its documents in a timely manner–waiting over two months to upload the purchase contracts that disclose the rates, dates, and times the ad ran. WTVD, an ABC affiliate in Durham, NC, ran an ad that explicitly stated on-screen “Vote for Thom Tillis,” but did not disclose Tillis’ name, nor the election the ad referred to–the upcoming primary election in North Carolina. [See Broadcasters Flouting Political Ad Disclosure Rules.]
It’s not surprising that the broadcasters are willing to attack any effort that might in any way damage the “cash cow” they have with political ads, which are a huge financial windfall for these stations. These profits have exploded since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which freed up unlimited corporate and union money to be spent in elections and which turned on the spigot for a deluge of ads financed by Super PACs and dark money groups.
The comments filed by CLC and the other groups focused on the substance of the Notice and urged expanding the online disclosure requirements to cable, satellite and radio (which, it should be noted, the NAB also supports). Such disclosure serves the viewing public and can be achieved without imposing a great burden on the vast majority of stations.
The groups also urged the FCC to move from a system that allows broadcasters to upload “pdf” documents in inconsistent formats to a searchable database system that ensures consistent and accurate information.
The NAB’s attack on “national advocacy groups” is an attempt to change the subject and divert attention from the real issue: posting political files online. Hopefully, the FCC will reject the NAB’s proposal and see it accurately as a diversionary tactic intended to gloss over the fact that there are a fair number of TV stations that are not following long-standing law and regulation. Instead of obeying the law, broadcasters are petitioning to decrease the odds that anyone will file a complaint when they break it.