Transparency continues to be a loaded word in Washington, and now broadcasters may be caught in the middle of another fight to pull back the curtain on those most mysterious of campaign contributors: the Super PACs. Activist groups have begun pushing the FCC to use its ad disclosure authority to identify the money behind all those high-stakes donors with the highfalutin names, along with other independent expenditure ads. The request could potentially reduce broadcasters’ political ad take.
The move is actually a two-front effort. One, spotlighted by Beltway-based watchdog group the Sunlight Foundation in an investigation of TV station political ad files, would require the FCC to better monitor those filings to ensure broadcasters are identifying the groups buying political ads in station documents, rather than simply the media buying firm.
That issue is more than academic for broadcasters, since the conventional wisdom is that if the actual donors behind groups like Americans for More American Values have to associate themselves directly with the ads, particularly attack ads, they will be less inclined to fund them.
The other effort, spearheaded by Common Cause and backed by some congressional Democrats, asks the FCC to use its disclosure muscle to go beyond the PACs and nonprofits to identify on-air the individuals or companies who are funneling money through those front groups.
That may sound familiar: Congressional Democrats tried unsuccessfully to require on-screen disclosures of the funders of Super PACs via the 2010 DISCLOSE Act (Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections).
At an FCC oversight hearing this month, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) left no doubt that he was looking for the commission to do what the Congress couldn’t in failing to pass the bill. “You have the statutory power,” plus the blessing of the Supreme Court, Nelson said. He also pointed out that in the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that lifted the ban on corporate and union funding of campaign ads, eight of nine justices said disclosure was the less restrictive alternative to what they saw as a ban on speech. “That would indicate that the court was looking approvingly on disclosure,” Nelson said.
There appears to be a Democratic majority on the commission for taking some action. FCC chairman Julius Genachowski called disclosure a First Amendment-friendly powerful tool, saying the FCC should look into “going more deeply into who the actual funders are.”
FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn said she is willing to work with Congress if the FCC is not doing something it should be. And commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel went furthest of all, saying sunlight is “the best disinfectant, and we should look at our rules and make sure they are updated.”
Adding fuel to the fire was a Government Accountability Office report released last month commissioned by Disclose Act champions. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Henry Waxman—the two requested the report—and Communications Subcommittee ranking member Anna Eshoo, all California Democrats, said the GAO paper clarifies that the FCC is obligated under existing law to require broadcast stations and cable TV operators to identify the sponsors of those ads on-air, and called for the FCC to exercise its power.
Common Cause hailed the legislators a day after the advocacy group made political ad disclosure one of the priorities of its media reform initiative, headed by former FCC commissioner and acting chairman Michael Copps.
“[A] chemical company dumping sludge into the Chesapeake Bay should not be allowed to masquerade as ‘Citizens for a Clean, Green Future,’” Copps blogged last week. “If the FCC would exercise the authority it has…we could at least see Big Money unmasked.”
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