Shedding Light on Political Ads: Database Should Be Comprehensive, Easier to Use

On Aug. 26, the Center for Effective Government joined comments by the Public Interest Public Airwaves Coalition and the Sunlight Foundation urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to make information about televised political advertisements more accessible. Greater disclosure of political ad spending will strengthen the integrity of our elections by informing voters about who is buying such ads.

Making Political Ad Spending Transparent

In April 2012, the FCC approved reforms to modernize the disclosure requirements for broadcasters operating on the public airwaves. The rule created an online database of TV stations' public files – which had previously been available only in hard copy at station offices – including information on political ads. Spending on political ads has ballooned in the aftermath of the 2010 Citizens United decision, and the Center for Effective Government and other accountability groups praised the FCC's rule for shedding more light on such attempts to influence our elections.

Who Has to Disclose?

At the same time, we noted that the rule contained significant loopholes. The requirement to post the political file initially applied only to stations affiliated with the "Big Four" TV networks – ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox – in the 50 largest media markets, which cover about two-thirds of the U.S. population. Stations in the remaining markets, and stations not affiliated with the Big Four networks, were exempted until July 2014.

The FCC pledged to seek comment after a year to assess the rule's effect in order to consider making any changes before the remaining stations are required to comply. In its request for comments, the FCC noted that "more than 200 television stations that are not currently subject to the online political file requirement have posted at least one document into the online political file."

Making Disclosure Useful

In another loophole, the FCC did not establish any specific formats for disclosing the political ad data. Instead, the rule only required stations to submit the information in whatever format the stations have it – even scanned documents are acceptable. Predictably, this resulted in a hodgepodge of formats, which makes it more difficult to search for particular information or extract the data for further analysis.

For instance, Sunlight and Free Press launched a new website, Political Ad Sleuth, which sought to use the new online FCC data and offer the public a better understanding of the use of political ad purchases. However, the groups encountered technical difficulties accessing and processing the data. In our comments, the groups explain that the FCC database “is cumbersome and difficult to navigate. Searches can only be conducted by station name, network affiliation, or channel number. This makes it nearly impossible to get an overall picture of spending by a single campaign, super PAC, or other outside group.”

ProPublica encountered similar problems in working on their Free the Files Project, which also sought to provide the public an interface for the political ad spending data. Based on its experience, ProPublica commented, "The biggest problem with the files at the moment is that they're not searchable."

The first year's experience has uncovered other weaknesses with the current process. Some of the filings are missing required information, such as the candidate discussed in the ad. Here, too, a technological upgrade could help fix the problem. If the FCC required stations to submit the data in a standard, machine-readable format, then software could automatically check that all required fields were completed – like many consumer tax preparation programs do.

Broadcasters Admit No Problems Complying with the Rule

When the FCC rule was proposed, broadcasters adamantly opposed posting the political files online because the information included the amounts paid for political ads. The industry argued that wider access to their ad rates – even though previously available in stations' public files – could weaken their negotiating power with advertisers and disadvantage TV stations compared to other advertising media.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) even filed suit in May 2012 to block the rule, arguing that the rule is "arbitrary, capricious," and violates the First Amendment. The case is on hold pending the FCC's comment period.

But in its latest comment to the FCC, NAB did not include a single example of a station that had suffered actual harm from complying with the rule. In fact, NAB stated, "Overall, the posting of political files for these stations can be characterized as uneventful."

Nevertheless, NAB speculates that the rule may impact smaller stations more harshly – despite the fact that more than 200 such stations have already begun to voluntarily comply. However, NAB does not argue that the requirement should be changed or delayed for smaller stations – only that the FCC should reassess the impacts after it goes into effect.

Interestingly, NAB actually argues that the rule should be expanded to require similar reporting from competitors in cable and satellite TV. Currently, cable and satellite companies are required to maintain public files, including information on political advertising. However, the FCC's online disclosure rule applies only to broadcast TV, not cable or satellite. NAB calls that a "regulatory and competitive disparity" and states, "There is no reason for declining to require at least cable and satellite operators’ political files to be online, as well."

Making the Data Comprehensive and Easier to Use

Even with the noted flaws, the FCC's rule has modernized the disclosure requirements for political TV ads and has taken a major step forward in making such information more accessible to the public and journalists. The FCC should stand by its plan to require all stations to comply by 2014.

Additionally, the FCC should take additional steps to ensure the information being disclosed is easy to use and analyze. By collecting the data in a machine-readable format, the FCC could facilitate analysis and reuse – and encourage greater public understanding of attempts to influence our elections.

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