Monday, June 11, 2012

Political TV Ad Disclosure

Back in April the headline usually looked like this "FCC Requires Local TV Stations to Disclose Political Ads Online. The ruling would require them all to disclose who bought what ads and how much they paid. I assumed that it was going to happen, it just made perfect sense. the information is already public, but the current requirements for access to the Public File were written in the 1950s, before the Internet existed. Presently you actually have to go down to your local TV stations studios and knock on the door and ask to see the public file. It's sort of silly. So in the spirit of making public things actually  public, the FCC asked that this all just go on the Internet. Who could possibly be against this? (Assuming it's not implemented in a really onerous format.) Well some broadcasters oppose it. They're arguing that there is a cost to disclosure, they fear compliance it self will add some kind of cost. NAB was particularly terse in their repudiation. I'll just quote them.
“By forcing broadcasters to be the only medium to disclose on the Internet our political advertising rates, the FCC jeopardizes the competitive standing of stations that provide local news, entertainment, sports and life-saving weather information free of charge to tens of millions of Americans daily."
So the NAB is just arguing they shouldn't be singled out. There's some truth to that as the ruling does not apply to radio, websites, newspapers or magazines. (not that they have jurisdiction over print publications) For me that's an argument for more disclosure not less. But that reason is both logical fallacy and also a false flag. Most stations probably don't object to outing their political ad buyers. They don't really hustle to sell those spots, they're required by law to carry them, and to sell them at their lowest rates. That means selling potentially prime-time spots at weekend overnight prices. So it's in their best interest to sell that time to virtually anyone else if they can. The NAB's function here isn't as a spoiler, it's to protect the interest of its members even if that interest is unethical or even illegal. They are a lobbyist group like any other. So here's the real deal:
1. They don't want the prices made public because then everyone knows what their rock-bottom rate is.  It undermines their ability to gouge other ad buyers. This is not illegal, it's just crappy.
2. Public disclosure of rock-bottom rates  also prevents them from gouging political ad buyers. Some stations over-charge Some political ad buyers and while it's illegal, it's profitable. It is also certainly partisan in application: conservatives outlets over-charging liberal candidates or vice versa.
So both of those reasons basically boil down to stations not wanting to publicly disclose any portion of their rate card. To protect this dubious self-interest FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell proposed removing the rate information, essentially just disclosing the ad buyer and the buy (when and where it ran)  This is most of what the public wants, so this will probably be the compromise that happens right?  No. Someone still objects. More here.

Last week, House Republicans voted along party-line vote to approve a policy rider to block the FCC ruling. Not to change it or limit it but just to stop it entirely. Republicans echoed the "burden" argument that NAB made ignoring the fact that the FCC already limited it to the stations in the top 50 markets. I expect big campaign donations from NAB to the republicans this year. Big donations. But the burden argument is just a smoke screen there too. While NAB members may be ambivalent on the disclosure of buyers, the super  PACS have a clear motivation. The function of the Super PAC is to obscure the buyer. If you disclose it at the point of sale that power becomes moot. So while the FCC ruling may be politically motivated, so is it's obstruction by the House. But the story isn't over.  Pro Publica has  threatened to crowd-source the data manually.  Nice move. More here.