Broadcasters fight plan to post names of political ad buyers on Web


This still is from an ad in Florida from Winning Our Future, a super PAC supporting former House speaker Newt Gingrich, that attacks former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
March 18, 2012

CBS and News Corp.’s Fox are among broadcasters fighting a plan to post names of campaign-ad buyers and purchase prices on the Web as record election spending raises concerns over anonymous political contributions.

The information is maintained in desk drawers and filing cabinets at television stations, and the Federal Communications Commission wants to bring the data to a Web site the agency would run.

The proposal would “impose significant new administrative burdens,” CBS and Fox stations told the agency Jan. 17 in comments joined by Comcast’s NBC stations and Walt Disney Co.’s ABC. The National Association of Broadcasters told the FCC recently that the agency lacks power to make the change.

A Supreme Court decision in 2010 allowed unlimited spending by corporations and labor organizations. The ruling helped clear the way for super-PACs, political action committees that spend independently of candidates.

“We desperately need openness,”’ Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), said March 6 at a meeting of the Energy and Commerce Committee. “We’ve got a bunch of billionaires and millionaires who are pouring millions of dollars into the elections of this country, and to these super-PACs, with nobody having the vaguest idea of who they are, what they’re up to, what they want or what would be the consequences of it.’’

Easing access

Putting files online would help researchers “reveal the true interests behind the purchases,” said a Dec. 22 filing by a coalition including the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington group working for campaign-finance disclosure and backing the FCC proposal, the nonprofit open-government advocate Common Cause and policy groups Free Press and Media Access Project.

The current rules require traveling to stations and contending with limited business hours, staff cooperation and photocopying costs, the coalition said.

“This notion of someone walking in and looking at pieces of paper — in the 21st century — it’s ridiculous on its face and it merely is meant to obfuscate,’’ Meredith McGehee, the Campaign Legal Center’s policy director, said in an interview.

The FCC made its proposal in October as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and groups supporting him were on their way to raising more than $100 million. President Obama has since embraced unlimited contributions as his campaign lost its fundraising edge after reaping $128 million for 2011.

About three-fourths of campaign funds go to ads and most is spent on local TV stations, Ken Goldstein, president of New York-based Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group, said in an interview.

Campaign spending on local TV stations may climb to about $3 billion this year, up from $2.3 billion in 2008, Goldstein said.

FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, the agency’s sole Republican, said in a Feb. 10 speech that the proposal is “likely to be a jobs destroyer” because stations will devote resources to complying.

Television station records include the rates paid for political ads. Gathering and distributing that information may result in price collusion “and would put the government’s thumb on the scale during advertising negotiations,” McDowell said.

Other critics go further. Because stations’ practices vary, placing the files online “would ultimately lead to a Soviet-style standardization of the way advertising should be sold as determined by the government,” Jerald Fritz, senior vice president of Allbritton Communications, which owns ABC-affiliated stations in six markets including Washington, said in a Jan. 27 filing.

The television station groups say it is unfair that cable operators who must keep similar records aren’t being asked to post the information online.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, a Democrat, has no deadline to set a vote on the proposal that’s moved forward with backing from him and Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn.

“Making this information easily accessible will let the public see the large number of broadcasters that are doing a strong job of meeting their public-interest obligations, and also those that are not,” Genachowski said in October as the FCC voted to publish the proposal for comment.

Neil Grace, an FCC spokesman, declined to comment. The five-member agency has two open seats after one member quit to join Comcast and another’s term expired.

Broadcasters are required to offer candidates the lowest rate customarily charged, and disclosure “ensures that candidates are not gouged” as they rush to buy air time before an election, McGehee said. Some broadcasters manipulate the system, she said.

“They know if they put this stuff where it’s easily accessed, the game they’re playing will be more revealed,” McGehee said.

Broadcasters reject that assertion, Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the Washington-based broadcasters’ association, said in an interview. He said that “broadcasters take seriously our obligations to afford discounted time to candidates.”

— Bloomberg Government

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