FCC Ruling Exposes Broadcaster Reluctance to Public Interest

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Common Dreams

FCC Ruling Exposes Broadcaster Reluctance to Public Interest

But putting political ad information online would be boon to democracy, say advocates

by
Common Dreams staff

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is seen on a television screen delivering a campaign speech in Florida. (Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images / January 26, 2012)

Ahead of an official determination on Friday, the Federal Communications Commission is receiving pressure from the nation's largest broadcasters and their GOP backers to squash a rule that would require television station's to provide online access to files showing the amount of money political campaigns are spending on advertisements.  Current law already demands that these files be made available for "public review" but because the statute is outdated, the records are only available on paper-printed versions at the physical location of individual television stations.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, who has backed the transparency proposal, has faced significant opposition. “Some in the broadcast industry,” Genachowski said to the National Association of Broadcasters last week, “have elected to position themselves against technology, against transparency and against journalism.”

The National Association of Broadcasters, the trade group that represents the industry, argue that revealing price information in a national database would harm their competitiveness and financial bottom lines, but transparency and public interest advocates say that broadcasters have a legal responsibility to the "public good" that comes in exchange for their use of public airwaves. "By law this information is supposed to be public," argue Craig Aaron and Corie Wright of the media watchdog Free Press. "And in 2012 — 'public' means online. That’s why these laws were made in the first place: to give the public the information it needs to evaluate how broadcasters are using — or misusing — the public airwaves."

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The Los Angeles Times: FCC weighs putting political ad data online; broadcasters balk

Media watchdogs and academics [...] think the broadcasters are overreacting. Andrew Schwartzman, senior vice president of the Media Access Project, said it is ironic that "broadcasters, who as journalists advocate for freedom of information laws, now want secrecy when it comes to their own operations."

...it is ironic that "broadcasters, who as journalists advocate for freedom of information laws, now want secrecy when it comes to their own operations."

J. Adam Skaggs, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, said greater disclosure of the actual rates would help ensure broadcasters are following the lowest-unit rate rules.

As for the worries of exposing sensitive pricing information to advertisers and rival stations every election cycle, Schwartzman said, "If it is leveling the playing field a little bit, that is part of the price broadcasters have to pay for getting a free license."

Although Genachowski appears to have the votes to push the rule change through, broadcast executives and lobbyists have been barraging the FCC with pleas to keep the commercial rate information off the Web.

"It's fair to say people on our side are very nervous," Schwartzman said. "The broadcasters have taken what to us seemed like a fairly minor issue and turned it into a major confrontation."

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Free Press' Craig Aaron and Corie Wright: Put broadcasters' files online

The National Association of Broadcasters and other major groups have now launched a lobbying onslaught that threatens public access to this information. They’ve slandered the FCC for trying to impose “Soviet-style standardization,” doing more whining than a toddler at a toy store."That’s why these laws were made in the first place: to give the public the information it needs to evaluate how broadcasters are using — or misusing — the public airwaves."

Now, in a last-ditch attempt to weaken the FCC’s proposal, broadcasters have asked the agency to compromise and allow the public access to only highly redacted online versions of the political files. This would exclude essential information on whether and on what terms the broadcasters sell political advertising.

Such omissions would make it virtually impossible to assess whether broadcasters are abiding by the laws that require them to give equal opportunities to candidates or to determine whether a station is giving one side of an election preferential advertising time and rates.

Broadcasters claim they need to hide this information because it’s commercially sensitive. But by law, this information is supposed to be public. And in 2012 — “public” means online.

That’s why these laws were made in the first place: to give the public the information it needs to evaluate how broadcasters are using — or misusing — the public airwaves.

Unfortunately, FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell has already indicated that he’s backing the broadcasters. At the NAB’s annual convention in Las Vegas, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn — the deciding vote on the current three-person FCC — told the industry that her “office is still open to engagement.”

The FCC must reject any moves to limit the public’s view of the political files. Denying people complete access to information they have a legal right to see would be a big mistake.

The public deserves full online access to broadcasters’ complete records. They should not have to make do with watered-down versions, blacked out by broadcast lobbyists.

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