FCC Rejects Disclosure Complaint Against WJLA, KGW

Campaign finance reform groups are calling for the FCC commissioners to review a staff-level decision rejecting their complaint against WJLA-TV Washington and KGW(TV) Portland, Ore.

"The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is shirking its responsibility to enforce the longstanding federal law requiring broadcasters to disclose the 'true identity' of the sponsors of political advertising," Common Cause said after the decision. "The Commission has not updated its rules in decades, so they are inadequate in the post-Citizens United and McCutcheon environment of unlimited anonymous political advertising."

Campaign Legal Center, the Sunlight Foundation and Common Cause, represented by the Institute for Public Representation, had argued that the stations had failed to "fully and fairly disclose" the true identity of the sponsors of certain political ads.

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."

He 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.

A Common Cause spokesperson said the FCC was trying to make it jump through some extra hoops, when all it wanted the commission to do was enforce the law already on the books, and to do so with the understanding that just putting the name of the sponsor is not sufficient when a name like Americans for Apple Pie is not giving viewers sufficient information on the true backers of the ad.

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.