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FCC Pressed on Political Ad Disclosures

In a marathon FCC oversight hearing in the
Senate Commerce Committee Tuesday, the commissioners were hammered and probed
on a host of issues from media ownership and universal service reform to the
just-approved T-Mobile/MetroPCS merger, cable deregulation retransmissionconsent, and political ad disclosures.

the hearing, all the commissioners committed to trying to expedite the
incentive auctions, though not all were certain the FCC could make its
self-imposed 2014 deadline.

of the more pointed exchanges involved the FCC's enforcement of advertising
disclosure rules for political spots.

Bill Nelson spent his allotted time on that issue alone. He asked whether the
FCC commissioners were willing to use their disclosure authority to require
identifying not only the PACs and other groups paying for ads, but the
underlying funders "hiding behind the Committee for God, Mother and
Country." Congress attempted but failed to mandate such sponsorship IDs in
legislation (the DISCLOSE Act) that failed to pass this year. "You have
the statory power," he said. "You don't have to do what we failed to
do four years ago, to pass the disclosure act."

pointed out that in the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that lifted a
ban on corporate and union funding of campaign ads, a majority of justices (8
of 9) said that 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."

reaction from the commissioners was mixed. All the commissioners said
disclosure was a good thing. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski called it a
"First Amendment-friendly, powerful tool," and pointed out that the
FCC last year adopted a rule requiring the political files of some stations to
be posted online. He said the next step would be to assess that role out,
consider the issues raised, including Nelson's, and proceed from there.

pointed out that legislation that did pass two years ago requires on-air
identification of all advertisers, and that the FCC has the authority to decide
how to do that. Genachowski said that the FCC should look into "going more
deeply into who the actual funders are."

commissioners also all agreed that the FCC should enforce its rules, but
Commissioner Ajit Pai suggested it was unclear whether disclosures applied
beyond the groups to the underlying funders, while Commissioner Robert McDowell
said there were a number of issues involved in such a decision, including
whether the Federal Election Commission or the FCC is the right forum, and
whether broadcasters should be the enforcers on these groups.

Pai and McDowell also pointed to the difficulty of fitting a series of funders
into a TV ad of limited duration. He also pointed to a 2012 GAO report that
found the FCC should update its sponsorship guidance to broadcasters, something
he supports.

Jessica Rosenworcel was the most unqualified supporter of Nelson's. "I
will make it easy for you. Yes. Sunlight is the best disinfectant and we should
look at our rules and make sure they are updated." Commissioner Clyburn
said she would be willing to work with Nelson if the FCC weren't doing
something it should be.

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas suggested that
stepping into the disclosure fight was something the FCC should not be doing.

cautioned the commissioners that the FCC had a long tradition of
nonpartisanship, which could be at risk. Pointing to the deep political
divisions over the DISCLOSE Act, he said: "Were the commission to endeavor
through rulemaking to end-run Congress and adopt a rule that would perceived [certainly
by his Republican colleagues] as overtly partisan, doing so could well
undermine the integrity and imperil the independence of the commission.

for its absence was any questioning about media violence--although committee
Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) did touch on the issue.

chairman closed out his questioning by saying that he had a question for
Genachowski on violence, but then added "you can't do anything about it,
and my time has run out."

touched on it again at the end of the hearing, saying "I could go on to
violence, but I know what you would say and I know what I would answer."
What they would say, he explained, was that they did not have the authority to
regulate violence. What he said is that he will continue to work on the issue.

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.