Money & Politics

A Victory for Transparency at the FCC

More broadcasters will now need to disclose the names of groups funding ads on their airwaves. But dark money groups can still keep their donors hidden.

A Victory for Transparency at the FCC

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler (C) holds hands with FCC Commissioners Mignon Clyburn (L) and Jessica Rosenworcel during an open hearing on Net Neutrality at the FCC headquarters February 26, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

A trove of new information about political ads will soon be available online, giving Americans a better sense of which big-money interests are trying to shape which elections.

Late last week, the Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously to require cable, satellite and radio stations with more than 1,000 subscribers to upload to the Internet information about the political ads they broadcast. Television broadcast stations have had to post this data to the Internet since 2014, but before that were only required to keep physical files on hand at their headquarters — any journalist or concerned citizen who wanted to know who was responsible for a given ad would have to show up in person to sort through papers. The FCC decision comes in response to a push by such transparency advocacy groups as Common Cause, the Campaign Legal Center and the Sunlight Foundation.

Mario Trujillo notes at The Hill that expanding these requirements is a particularly big deal because they will now cover radio, typically home to some of the nastiest campaign advertising. But these good-government groups did not get everything they were looking for, writes money-and-politics reporter Paul Blumenthal at The Huffington Post:

They had also petitioned the FCC to require stations and operators to disclose political ad files in a machine-readable format so they can be standardized, coded and filed electronically. Currently, files need only be disclosed in non-standardized PDF files — which means they could include scanned, printed or even hand-written documents.

This makes it nearly impossible to create a user-friendly database detailing the amount groups spend on ad buys and the number of spots they purchase, among many others things.

To address that problem, the Sunlight Foundation took the info from the FCC’s database and built its own database, Political Ad Sleuth, to provide more user-friendly access to the files. However, the lack of machine-readable disclosures limits the information Political Ad Sleuth can aggregate.

“Now that we are moving toward more robust disclosure, the FCC should require a standardized form that is machine readable,” Sunlight Foundation executive director John Wonderlich said in a statement. “Currently the forms are in PDFs which make it difficult for the public to analyze and reuse data from the political ad file.”

What’s more, many of the groups that buy political ads can still hide behind names that at best, impart no information about the donors behind them or their agenda (the Koch brothers’ “Americans for Prosperity,” for instance) and, at worse, mislead: Jon Schwarz at The Intercept recently reported, for example, that a super PAC called “Black Americans for a Better Future” draws all of its funding from wealthy white men.

A recent ballot measure that passed in Maine took aim at this problem, requiring any groups that advertise to list their top three donors on air. And in a letter to the FCC last month, nearly 170 House Democrats called on the FCC to do something similar. “We believe the Federal Communications Commission has the responsibility and legal authority to require disclosure of the actual donors behind these ads,” the letter, spearheaded by Energy and Commerce Committee Members John Yarmuth (D-KY) and Anna G. Eshoo (D-CA), stated. “While a non-disclosing organization may in fact have had editorial control over the advertisement, the true sponsors of the advertisement are those who contributed the money to pay for it.”

John Light


John Light is a writer and digital producer for the Moyers team. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, Grist, Mother Jones, Salon, Slate, Vox and Al Jazeera, and has been broadcast on Public Radio International. He's a graduate of Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. You can follow him on Twitter at @LightTweeting.