The Sunlight Foundation, Campaign Legal Center and Common Cause have officially asked the FCC to reverse the Media Bureau's dismissal of their complaint against TV stations WJLA-TV Washington and KGW-TV Portland, Ore.
In its official petition for review, the groups said the bureau incorrectly applied the reasonable diligence standard and that it was broadcasters, not the public, who needed to do the due diligence to establish the real funding behind PAC-backed ads.
They had alleged that the stations got money from Super PACs to run the political spots, that those PACs got virtually all their money from a single donor, and that the broadcasters should have to disclose that donor's name on air.
The groups had targeted the stations for insufficiently disclosing the sponsors of political ads, which they say violates the Communications Act and the FCC's political ad disclosure rules.
But in a letter to the groups' lawyers dated Sept. 3, Robert Baker, assistant chief of the Media Bureau's policy division, said that they had not made a "sufficient showing that the stations had credible evidence casting into doubt that the identified sponsors of the advertisement were the true sponsors."
Baker said the FCC did find that WJLA might have had sufficient evidence to raise questions about the sponsorship, but cited First Amendment issues. "While the complaint against WJLA presented some evidence that station employees may have come across facts in the course of news reporting on political issues that could have raised questions in their minds concerning the relationship of NextGen Climate Action Committee and Tom Steyer, we exercise our discretion not to pursue enforcement in this instance, given the need to balance the 'reasonable diligence' obligations of broadcasters in identifying the sponsor of an advertisement with the sensitive First Amendment interests present here."
He also put part of the denial on Campaign Legal Center et al., saying: "Our approach might have been different if the complainants had approached the stations directly to furnish them with evidence calling into question that the identified sponsors were the true sponsors," the suggestion being that if the broadcasters had not taken action after being informed of inadequate disclosures, the bureau might have looked at the complaint differently.
Campaign finance reformers have been looking to the FCC to enforce the kind of TV and radio political ad disclosures that Congress failed to legislate in the DISCLOSE Act.
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Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.