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Broadcasters Are ‘Against Transparency,’ Says FCC Chairman

by Justin Elliott

Television stations, which have been fighting a government proposal to make political ad data more accessible, came in for some harsh criticism yesterday at their annual trade show in Las Vegas. In a keynote speech Monday afternoon at the National Association of Broadcasters convention, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski unleashed on the industry.

FCC Open Meeting - Broadband PlanFCC Chairman Genachowski speaking in 2010. (photo: Greg Elin)

"[S]ome in the broadcast industry have elected to position themselves against technology, against transparency and against journalism," said Genachowski, who favors the proposed rule, which would create an FCC website for political ad data.

The data is already public but kept only on paper at TV stations. (That's why ProPublica has launched Free the Files. We're inviting volunteers to visit the stations and help collect the data so anybody can see it. The data can provide information not available through traditional campaign finance filings.)

As we've previously reported, the National Association of Broadcasters, led by former Sen. Gordon Smith, has been lobbying the FCC to water down the proposed rule requiring stations to post the data. The commission will vote on it April 27.

Genachowski criticized television stations for opposing the transparency measure despite the "proud history of broadcast journalism."

Genachowski also answered broadcasters' objections point by point. Here's the key portion of his speech:

The arguments, made in the public record, shouldn't go unanswered.

First, cost. The argument is that meeting existing disclosure obligations online instead of on paper would be a heavy financial burden and indeed a "jobs destroyer." But the facts demonstrate the unsurprising conclusion that the cost of online disclosure is nominal and that, indeed, once the transition from paper to digital is complete, it will save money — save money for broadcasters and for other stakeholders: including political candidates, journalists and the public at large.

It's also noteworthy that any disclosure costs tied to putting the political file online relate directly to political advertising revenue received by broadcasters, which is estimated to be in the $3 billion range this year, up by large amounts over past years.

Another argument that's been made: This isn't an FCC issue. That argument is refuted by the plain language of the law. Congress explicitly requires broadcasters to "maintain, and make available for public inspection, a complete record of a request to purchase broadcast time that is made by or on behalf of a legally qualified candidate, etc."

Congress placed this requirement in the Communications Act, and explicitly charged the FCC with the obligation to carry out these provisions. It gave both the FEC and the FCC roles, understanding the unique role broadcasters play and that some of the information Congress requires broadcasters to make public is never provided to the FEC, and what is provided is sent weeks or months later. The FCC's role here is clear, essential and very longstanding.

Another objection is that the disclosed information is "proprietary," particularly the rates broadcasters charge for political advertising. But, one, Congress explicitly requires broadcasters to disclose this information, and, two, broadcasters already do.

In other words, the argument against moving the public file online is that required broadcaster disclosures shouldn't be too public. But in a world where everything is going digital, why have a special exemption for broadcasters' political disclosure obligation?