< Requiring Local TV Stations to Disclose Political Ad Buys Online

Transcript

Friday, January 06, 2012

BOB GARFIELD:

In Iowa this week, wall to bleachers coverage of caucusers caucusing and of an emergent insurgent, GOP runner-up Rick Santorum. It was as if the media were supercharged with ethanol!

MALE CORRESPONDENT:

I can only say three letters, O-M-G. Look

at this. Look what’s goin’ on. One vote, one vote right now separates…

MALE CORRESPONDENT:

As it stands right now, too close to call, and it, it’s just unbelievable when you look at the numbers…

FEMALE CORRESPONDENT:

It’s still too close to call, and we do not have any idea when we’re gonna be able to call this. It's great!

BOB GARFIELD:

But we're not gonna cover the Iowa caucuses,  because they totally didn't matter. What does matter this weekend always about the political process is where the money comes from to fund campaigns and how that money is spent.

State and federal election commissions collect fairly good data on the contribution side, but the spending side is mainly mysterious. That's largely because the recipients of the cash, chiefly local TV stations, have very limited obligations for making the information public. Till now they've merely had to keep a public file of political ad sales and submit that file for review to any member of the public who physically walks into a station to request it.

A proposed Federal Communications Commission regulation would require stations to routinely digitize the data so that the FCC could make it readily and rapidly available online. But the broadcasting industry is resisting.

Steven Waldman, now visiting senior media policy scholar at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, was the author of the FCC report which led to the proposed regulation. He says the FCC's media policy was written before the Internet and should be updated for the digital age.

STEVEN WALDMAN:

You can take this material and put it online and, in doing that, make it much more useful because people from other towns can see it, you can take information from five different stations and aggregate it easily and see really what the patterns are in a community or across a region. It really takes this gold mine of really useful information and makes it much more effective as a transparency tool.

BOB GARFIELD:

I just want to make this clear. Stations already collect the information and are required to keep track of who's paying what for what.

STEVEN WALDMAN:

Yes, exactly. It's on pieces of paper in a file in a filing cabinet in their offices. The way the files are currently kept is they have to update them pretty frequently, really, within 48 hours. The rules apply not only to federal races but also state races, local races, the mayor. So instead of having the situation where after the election’s over, you find out all sorts of useful interesting information about how campaign money was spent. The TV stations are keeping this in real time.

BOB GARFIELD:

The minimum requirement for maintaining a broadcast license is so much less onerous than it has been historically.  There's not a whole lot that broadcasters have to do in exchange for that free access to the broadcast spectrum that they control.

STEVEN WALDMAN:

In the olden days, there was this basic pact that broadcasters would get the spectrum for free from taxpayers and in exchange they would do certain service to the community, and originally there was fairly specific prescriptive rules about amounts of public affairs programming and things like that. Over time, for a variety of reasons, that faded away. And now their main responsibility is to keep track of certain types of information in what they call the public inspection file.

And so, partly what this FCC rule is doing is saying it would be nice now if we allowed the public to inspect the public inspection file,  make it easier so that this transparency obligation could become more meaningful,  ‘cause right now it's really not all that meaningful.

BOB GARFIELD:

The NAB, the National Association of Broadcasters, has said that this change in the rules will create a greater data collection burden and an onerous one.

STEVEN WALDMAN:

If that's true, they will become the first industry that I've heard of that managed to use the Internet to become less efficient –

[BOB LAUGHS]

- and more costly. So maybe if, if they're not thinking about the right way, yeah, you can always duplicate effort, but it's basic Transparency 101 for the information age.

The FCC, in fact, took, you know, a fairly light touch approach on this in focusing on transparency, frankly. The Citizens United case, which has led to this increase in spending, including a windfall for local TV stations, Justice Kennedy, when he wrote that, said the reason that we don't need caps and limits is we have such great disclosure. So –

BOB GARFIELD:

This was the other shoe that has to drop, according to the majority opinion in the Citizens United case, to make Citizens United makes sense in a democracy, that the disclosure of where the money's coming from gives the public better context and understanding as to who's got a dog in each fight.

STEVEN WALDMAN:

Exactly. Say what you will about the Citizens United decision and what possibly negative effects it's had on the political system, there's clearly won big winner in that, and it's local TV stations. Local TV stations are earning a lot of money from political ads as a result of the looser campaign rules. And so, it seems reasonable that hand-in-hand with that would go some sort of obligation to help the population police how this money is being spent.

BOB GARFIELD:

Steve, thank you very much.

STEVEN WALDMAN:

Thank you for having me.

BOB GARFIELD:

Steven Waldman is visiting senior media policy scholar at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.