Groups Lodge Political File Complaint at FCC

Saying the FCC is doing "absolutely nothing" to enforce the law on disclosure of the sponsors of political ads, the Campaign Legal Center, joined by the Benton Foundation and the Sunlight Foundation, has filed a complaint with the FCC against Scripps' WCPO-TV Cincinnati.

The CLC also released a report alleging that of the 1,220 political ad filings they looked at in the key battleground states of Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania—35% lacked the requisite information.

The groups were able to collect and massage that data thanks to the FCC's decision to require TV station—and now MPVD—public files to be uploaded to an FCC-administered database.

The groups claim that 16 of the 17 issue ad entries in WCPO's online political file "clearly failed" to meet the FCC's disclosure rules, and the 17th may not either.

Among the information they say is missing is when an ad actually aired, what the issue of public importance was and either the CEO or board of directors (in the case of an AARP ad about social security).

The group gives a shout out to competitor WLWT to contrast it with WCPO. It says that WLWT's airing of the same ad as WCPO (from the Constitutional Responsibility Project) identified board members and made it clear what the ad was about, while WCPO did not.

"WLWT’s disclosure demonstrates exactly the kind of due diligence that the Commission contemplates with respect to commercials addressing national issues of public importance, and how easy it is to fulfill that obligation," the complaint said.  

"By maintaining incorrect and incomplete information in its political file, WCPO-TV has failed to uphold its obligations under the Communications Act and FCC rules, and has undermined the transparency of the public file system," say the groups.

They want the FCC to fine the station and issue a public notice reminding broadcasters of their disclosure obligations.

Why WCPO? Meredith McGehee, policy director at CLC, said it was because of the contrast to WLWT. "We wanted to show that this is not a heavy lift if you just do the due diligence."

She said there was no way to file against all the stations with incomplete information, and that they should not have to do the policing. "That's the FCC's job," she said of what she called the "widespread noncompliance."

The same groups have pushed the FCC to toughen those disclosures, or at least interpret them to require more information, in the wake of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that allowed corporations and unions to fund ads that advocate the elections of candidates in the run-up to primaries and general elections.

Campaign finance reform groups have sought enhanced disclosure of political ad files as one way to help them counter the flood of so-called "dark" money expenditures by third-party groups that followed the Supreme Court's decision.

"We are looking into the report from The Campaign Legal Center," said a Scripps spokesperson. "WCPO-TV takes great care in maintaining its political files as required in Section 315 of the Communications Act."

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.