More Political-Ad Vetting Required

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission’s Media Bureau has clarified what TV and radio stations — and cable- and satellite-owned outlets — have to disclose about the political advertising that fills their election-cycle coffers.

Whether or not the eleventh-hour move in an exiting administration holds remains to be seen, though.

In a decision issued late on a Friday (Jan. 6), the FCC’s Media Bureau resolved complaints about political ad disclosures: complaints facilitated by the agency’s decision, under former chairman Julius Genachowski, to require TV and stations to upload public files, including political files, to a searchable, FCC-administered online database.


The bureau said those outlets must identify all candidates, all issues of importance and all sponsoring officials, though whether that includes officials of PACs or gets to the underlying funders remains open to interpretation.

The bureau decision was progress, according to one of the complainers, and even more important in the wake of the rise of “fake news” and Russian hacks of the political system.

Outgoing FCC chairman Tom Wheeler had been pushed by various groups and Hill Democrats to tighten TV and radio ad disclosures in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allowed corporations and unions to fund TV and radio ads in the run-up to elections. They sought tighter rules as one way to help counter the flood of so-called “dark” money expenditures by third-party groups and complained that stations were violating the FCC disclosure rules already on the books.

The FCC levied no fines but admonished one station (a black mark in its file) and put the others on notice of its new disclosure advisory.

Republican commissioners were unhappy with what they saw as a waning-hours decision on delegated authority but not with a lot of what was in the item.

“These orders purport to resolve many questions of statutory interpretation that are not appropriately addressed on delegated authority,” Republican commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly said. “As a result, we requested that they be brought to the commissioners for a vote. Given that we agreed with much of the substance of the orders as written, we were optimistic that the commissioners would have been able to reach consensus on these items, providing certainty to the interested parties going forward. Sadly, we were never given that chance, and these orders thus will need to be revisited in the new administration.”

The complaints were targeted at TV stations, but the clarification and new obligations apply to cable and satellite providers and satellite radio licensees, the FCC was quick to point out in a footnote in the decision.

While the FCC requires some types of complaints — indecency, for example — to come from viewers in the market where the TV station targeted with the complaint is located, the FCC said that does not have to be the case with the political files that are now easily available online at the FCC to anyone nationwide.


Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, one of the groups that filed the complaints, would have preferred even more tightening and action before the recent election.

“It is suboptimal to put it out on a Friday afternoon after the election,” he said. “I would have liked to see a different kind of approach,” which he said would be “an even stronger statement regarding the right of the public to know who originated any political ads.” He said disclosures should be made “in machine readable format on the Internet as soon as those ads are filed.”

Ideally, Howard said, “you would be able to have your phone listen to an ad and identify who funded it.”

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.