< The Onerous Task of Disclosing Political Ad Buys Online

Transcript

Friday, January 06, 2012

BOB GARFIELD:

Jack Goodman is a legal counsel to the National Association of Broadcasters. He says the proposal would put an onerous burden on stations because the digital submission of the advertising files is not nearly as efficient as Waldman describes.

JACK GOODMAN:

You're assuming that there would be a spreadsheet which would be an entirely different form of recordkeeping. Right now there are a variety of types of records that go into a station's political file. There are initial inquiries from candidates and their managers about the availabilities of time. That can come in by email, that can come in by fax, that can come in by a telephone call.

Then the Commission requires that the station keep records of how it disposed of those requests, which can often mean multiple offers and counter-offers. Say, a candidate says, I want 200 spots, the station says, how about 60, and they negotiate to 110. All of those negotiations have to be reflected in the file.

Then there is a contract, and then the file must indicate when the spots aired and how much were paid for them.

BOB GARFIELD:

Let's just say that you're right and that the paperwork burden for member stations would increase, not diminish. Broadcasters who use public airwaves are asked very little in exchange for their licenses. Even if it were an onerous burden, is that not sort of like a minimum responsibility for stations to meet their public disclosure requirements?

JACK GOODMAN:

I, I have to say that the assumptions in that question are highly debatable. The whole question of whether the airwaves belong to the public is one that has been debated for 80 years, and the assumption that there is one answer is not at all clear.

But even assuming it is, broadcasters do a lot, and in particular in this case, they are required to give a reasonable access to candidates for federal elective office, they generally give access to others and they have to provide that at a substantial discount to normal commercial rates.

BOB GARFIELD:

Now, you describe that as a sacrifice. It may be a sacrifice of a sort but it's one that provides billions of dollars of cash into the coffers of TV stations.

JACK GOODMAN:

Indeed, stations do sell a lot of time. But they do sell it at a discount from what they otherwise would be able to sell it at. So the broadcasters do give a lot.

And the question is what is the purpose of putting all this material online because the people who primarily use it, who are the people in the community for whom the local public file was established, and candidates who need to find information about what their opponents are running, have access to that information.

BOB GARFIELD:

The — no, the question is the rest of the country's access. In order to find out what a station in Davenport, Iowa is getting from the candidates for the Republican nomination or from SuperPACs is limited to those who can, you know, drag their sorry butts into the TV stations themselves and ask to see a paper file. Obviously, there are benefits of transparency that go far beyond the physical  borders of, of Davenport. Do you see no advantage to the body politic, as a whole, having access to what's being spent community by community?

JACK GOODMAN:

Well, for example, if you wanted to have a post-election report, where you said, how much money did the Romney campaign spend on this particular station in Manchester during the New Hampshire primary, that would be a very different question and would present a lot of different issues than the proposal the Commission has made, which is the file, as it is, uploaded on essentially a constant basis.

The burden of doing this, which is very, very large, needs to be contrasted with the benefit:  Who exactly would benefit from it?

BOB GARFIELD:

It's probably fair to say that the notion of transparency in the campaign finance process has become a major societal imperative over recent decades and that it’s long ceased to be controversial that the public at large has an interest in knowing what political candidates are spending where.

JACK GOODMAN:

And that information is available in a variety of ways. It's not only available in terms of the public file at television stations, it is also, of course, available at the Federal Election Commission.

BOB GARFIELD:

You get to find out what they've collected at the Federal Election Commission –

[OVERTALK]

JACK GOODMAN:

And what they've spent.

BOB GARFIELD:

— and what they spend, but you don't know where. You don't know how it's been deployed, you don't know how it's been sliced and diced. I need hardly tell you that data is useful in many, many ways that may not be entirely obvious at first blush.

JACK GOODMAN:

The negotiations back and forth over whether a candidate gets 100 spots or 150 spots is only really of interest to that candidate.  Yet, that would be required to be uploaded. And what broadcasters suggested is that before the Commission adopts a rule it should establish a working group to develop a system that's workable, that's scalable and that is not burdensome and provides the information that people think is required.

BOB GARFIELD:

So, in general, you're down with this information being widely available in real time, provided you can come up with a mechanism for so doing that doesn't require scanning hundreds of documents and manually feeding them onto the Internet.

JACK GOODMAN:

I think it is worth considering. I don't want to say that I'm for it because, again, I'm not altogether sure what is the audience for this information. What exactly do they need and when do they need it? And the Commission didn't even address those issues.

BOB GARFIELD:

All right. Jack, thank you so much.

JACK GOODMAN:

Oh, my pleasure.

BOB GARFIELD:

Jack Goodman is a broadcast attorney and outside counsel to the National Association of Broadcasters.