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Sunlight: FCC 'Stumbling' as Campaign Ad Enforcer

Updated 1:51 p.m. ET

The Sunlight Foundation says broadcasters are ignoring
campaign finance laws that require specific disclosures on political ad
reporting forms, and using a form that allows for fudging that disclosure.

The foundation's Reporting Group has been mining the FCC's
online database of top 50 market affiliate TV station public files, which the
commission has required since August to be filed in a public FCC-administered

to a story on the foundation's website,
the FCC has been
"stumbling" as a campaign law enforcer, which it says is particularly
problematic in the wake of the Citizens United decision.

An FCC spokesman countered that the law clearly states that
the names of officers and directors of such groups must be identified in ads
and that it will review any complaint that is lodged, and a source says the
commission informed the National Association of Broadcasters that the form
is not compliant.

"NAB regularly updates the political broadcasting form -- in fact, we have done it 17 times -- and will clarify any ambiguity," said National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton.

Sunlight says that while the 2002 McCain-Feingold finance
reform law requires TV stations to collect the names of board members or
officers of the independent groups running ads for federal candidates or issues
of public importance, the NAB-supplied reporting form suggest using the name of
an "authorized agent" -- an advertiser placing the spot, for instance
-- rather than the officers of the group itself.

Currently only the top four affiliates in the top 50 markets
have to post their political files to the FCC website. But after a review of
that process this summer, the FCC plans to extend the requirement to other

The Sunlight Story comes as campaign finance reformers,
including in Congress, are pushingthe FCC to better enforce its disclosure requirements post-Citizens United
and after the failure of legislative efforts to toughen those TV station ad
online disclosures.

But those efforts are targeted at extending beyond
identifying the officers of the PACs to getting the FCC to require disclosure
of the companies and individuals funding those groups.

An FCC spokesman said the FCC is very much on the job. 
"The Commission is firmly committed to enforcement of all of its rules,
including those relating to political programming generally and to enforcement
of Section 504 of BCRA, specifically," an FCC spokesman said. "The
Commission routinely relies on complaints and our investigation and resolution
of those complaints as a means of ensuring compliance with many of our rules.
We primarily rely on this approach in enforcing the political programming rules
and statutory provisions. The online public file, which includes the political
file, facilitates this process by making information about stations' activities
widely and easily accessible to the public they serve, as well as to candidates
and others directly affected by the political programming rules. Any complaint
filed with the Commission concerning compliance with these rules will be
promptly considered."

An FCC source speaking on background added that the FCC does
not review the forms to certify that they comply with the rules, pointing out
that the law makes it explicit that officers and board members of the groups
buying the ads must be disclosed. Disclosing the names a of a media buyer or
agent does not fulfill statute, they said, and when that was brought to the
commission's attention, the source did not say by whom,  NAB was informed
that the form was not compliant.

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.