Government regulators take up a rule with wide political implications Friday. The Federal Communications Commission is expected to vote on a proposal requiring TV stations to post online information about the campaign ads they air.
Stations are already compelled to keep those records in public files. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski says it's time to make that information available on the Internet. But TV stations are resisting.
Genachowski says he wants to bring broadcasters into the 21st century with his proposal to put information about ad buys and spending online. Open-government groups applaud the idea.
Lisa Rosenberg with the Sunlight Foundation says the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case opened up the floodgates for political ad spending — the source of which in many cases is hidden. The FCC rule wouldn't change that, but it would make the process more open.
"What this FCC rule-making would do would bring to light a little of the information behind those ads," she says. "We think it's a very important first step to disclosing and uncovering the dark money that's paying for our elections."
While that information is available at the TV stations airing the ads, if it's not online, she says, it's not public.
Kent State University journalism professor Karl Idsvoog recently assigned his students to go to Cleveland-area TV stations. He says none of the station officials would agree to a taped interview, and the students were charged 50 cents a page to make copies of the public records.
He says the students were left with an important lesson: "Why would TV stations, when they make a bundle of money going out doing reporting day after day — oftentimes going after public records — why would that business not want to make their public records available online?"
The answer, Idsvoog says, is business. The stations, which collectively stand to earn an estimated $3 billion running campaign ads in this presidential election year, have argued that complying with the new rule would cost them money and force them to reveal their ad rates to competitors.
Former Sen. Gordon Smith, president of the National Association of Broadcasters, did not respond to interview requests. But FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell argues stations are in a tough spot.
"Politicians are actually entitled by law to the cheapest rate that a TV broadcaster offers, and in order to be able to verify that they're getting the cheapest rate, they wanted to be able to see it. So that resulted in the requirement that that lowest unit rate be put in the file," McDowell says. "So that also has competitive concerns for them, though, when you post it online."
McDowell has proposed removing the rate information from the data that stations would be made to post online. He says TV stations are unfairly being singled out.
"Not newspapers, not radio stations, not cable TV stations, not political consultants who pay people to knock on doors and things like that — but just TV broadcasters," he says. "So let's look at the entities spending the money rather than just one of a broad universe of folks who are receiving it."
McDowell concedes that he's likely to be outvoted Friday by the two other commissioners. But the new rule still represents a compromise: Only stations in the 50 biggest markets will have to comply this year. That means smaller cities in many of the swing states likely to be hotly contested in this fall's presidential and Senate races will be exempt from the new requirement.
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