Broadcasters Drop Fight Against Campaign Ad Transparency

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One of the best recent FCC decisions was the requirement that all broadcast television stations make available online the public inspection files that used to be accessible only if you were willing to travel to your local TV station and wade through filing cabinets full of paper documents.

screenshot from the report by Cleveland journalism students digging up campaign ad data at their local TV stations

Cleveland journalism students dig up campaign ad data at their local TV stations.

Now you only need to go as far as your personal computer to search, an especially valuable tool for those who want to know who’s paying for all those political ads that jam the airwaves during election season and deliver a fortune to broadcasters. While not a perfect system, with the ever-increasing secrecy over the sources and amounts of campaign contributions, the FCC rules are one way to try to figure out who’s writing the checks.

Back in 2012, Bill Moyers observed that broadcasters were pushing back hard against the FCC rules, “stamping their feet like spoiled children and shouting: ‘No! We will not!’” The Washington Post reported that the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the leading lobbyist for TV and radio stations, had “told the FCC recently that the agency lacks power to make the change.”

The FCC pushed ahead, beginning with the top broadcast stations in the top 50 markets and then expanding last year to all markets.

This week, the NAB voluntarily withdrew its appeal of the FCC rules. Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, one of several groups that supported the FCC in the NAB dispute, commented, “Now the FCC should take the next logical steps to require the information to be filed in a standardized, searchable, and sortable database. Currently, most stations upload ‘pdfs’ with no standard format. And further the agency should follow through on its proposed rulemaking to expand the requirements to cable, satellite and radio.”

That expansion is a next logical step toward greater transparency of where campaign money’s coming from and how it’s spent. That Notice of Proposed Rulemaking was issued by the FCC in December. We’ll monitor its progress and let you know how you can make your opinion known.

Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, and a former senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.
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