Consumer advocates: FCC should require more disclosure on political ads

March 22, 2011

The Federal Communications Commission should require sponsors of political advertising to disclose their biggest financial backers to the public, according to a petition filed Tuesday by a public-interest law firm.

The Media Access Project, which advocates on behalf of consumers in telecommunications issues, argues that the FCC has interpreted federal law too narrowly when it comes to disclosures for political ads.

Under current rules, some of which date back to the 1940s, the FCC requires disclosure only for the group claiming responsibility for the ad, no matter how it paid for it.

But Andrew Schwartzman, the media project’s senior vice president and policy director, says the Communications Act of 1934 and subsequent legislation anticipates a much broader standard: disclosure of those actually paying for the message.

Schwartzman’s petition asks the FCC to revise its rules to require groups to disclose financial backers who contribute more than 10 percent of their budgets as part of public documents filed with broadcast stations. It would also require on-air disclosures for donors who provide more than 25 percent of a television commercial’s budget.

“The statutory objective of informing the electorate about who is the ‘true’ sponsor of political messages is not being met,” Schwartzman writes in the media project’s petition. “...Existing campaign finance and IRS regulations allow organizations which are often hollow shells for one or a few organizations or individuals to purchase commercials without identifying the source of their funding.”

The petition is the latest volley in the ongoing battle over the future of campaign-finance regulations, which have been significantly curtailed by recent court rulings, including a decision by the Supreme Court allowing unfettered spending by corporations.

The White House and congressional Democrats failed in attempts last year to impose broader disclosure requirements on outside advocacy groups, many of which are able to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money without revealing any donors.

The FCC is currently split 3-to-2 in favor of Democrats, including Chairman Julius Genachowski. Schwartzman said he doesn’t know whether any of the FCC’s members or the White House will look favorably on the proposal.

“I would argue it’s a relatively modest change in existing practices,” he said. “I have no idea what their view will be.”

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