Democrats Push Wheeler on Political Ad Disclosure

More than 160 House Democrats (169 at last count) have asked the FCC to boost disclosures of political ads by "exercise[ing] its authority under existing law to require the disclosure of the true sponsors of political ads."

That came in a letter to FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, who despite earlier calls from congressional Democrats and campaign finance reformers, has not signaled an interest in looking into the extent of the commission’s authority to require more detailed disclosures of the funders of those PAC and SuperPAC ads filling station coffers.

“We write to respectfully request that you ensure the full disclosure of the sponsors of political advertisements, as required by Section 317 of the Communications Act of 1934," they said Wednesday. "In today’s political reality of non-stop campaigning, our system continues to fail the American people by allowing special interests and shadow groups to flood our airwaves with anonymous ads with no disclosure whatsoever. We believe the Federal Communications Commission has the responsibility and legal authority to require disclosure of the actual donors behind these ads.”

The request comes on the eve of the anniversary of what they called one of the most corrosive decisions for democracy by the Supreme court.

On Jan. 21, 2010, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision lifted the ban on direct funding of electioneering communications by corporations and unions, saying it was a violation of speech rights. But it did preserve requirements to disclose those ad expenditures on-air.

The FCC has not found broadcasters to be in violation of that requirement in myriad challenges to how various broadcasters have disclosed funders for PAC ads, but campaign finance reformers argue the FCC needs to tighten its regulations and require the actual funders to fess up.

The FCC has proposed extending its TV station online political file requirement to radio stations and cable and satellite operators, which could boost transparency but would still avoid the issue of enhanced disclosures.

Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Communications Subcommittee, and John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), among the letter's signers, introduced legislation that would require broadcasters to identify the "actual" funders of those ads on air. the bill has not gotten traction in the Republican-controlled Communications subcommittee.

One former Democratic FCC chair was in the legislators' corner.

"The 2016 campaign season has already brought a torrent of nauseating, anonymous political smears on the airwaves," said former FCC commissioner Michael Copps, who is now special adviser to Common Cause’s Media and Democracy Reform Initiative. “Transparency in political ad sponsorship is the common sense antidote."

John Eggerton

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.