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The real scam: Don't let broadcasters shut down FCC political ad database over online ripoff

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A story which had been making the rounds in broadcast trade publications, broke into the mainstream media last week, when NPR reported that scammers have been taking advantage of the Federal Communications Commission's online political ad file to rip off political consultants.

Hold the no-honor-among-thieves jokes. Let's just stipulate that stealing is not a good thing, even if the victims are political consultants. But there's another set of potential victims here who are in much greater need of protection.

Far more worrisome than what the latest developments on the FCC database mean for advertisers' information is what they could mean for yours.

Just a wild guess from a longtime (and therefore, cynical) observer of the political scene, but this reporter would not be the least bit surprised if the National Association of Broadcasters, which has been fighting like heck to avoid putting public records about political ad buys on line, tries to use this hiccup as an excuse to roll back the hard-won, albeit messy and minimal, disclosure that we now have.

Don't penalize the public

If that should happen, let's just hope our policymakers, instead of mindlessly caving in to monied special interests, keep a few salient facts in mind:

  1. It is the broadcasters who for years have stuffed cancelled checks, bank routing numbers and other sensitive information indiscriminately into paper files where they all have been visible to anyone who wanders in to see them;
  2. It is the broadcasters whose demands for relief from paperwork burdens led to the creation of an easy-peasy "drag-and-drop" system for posting the files online to the FCC.
  3. It is the broadcasters who shoveled those files, complete with sensitive financial information, onto the Internet.
The public should not be penalized for these oversights, which would be exactly the result if the FCC responds to the scamming by making a resource for citizen watchdogs worse instead of better.

While Sunlight's Reporting Group has had plenty to say about how limited and under-informative the FCC's online ad database is, there is no question that the broadcasting watchdogs have done far more than anyone else in government (Congress and the Federal Election Commission come to mind) to help Americans try to identify the big money interests trying to influence elections.

In the wake of the 2010 Citizens United decision, the enormous spending by outside interest groups  -- many of which don't even have to register with the Federal Election Commission -- allowed well-heeled donors could hide behind vaguely patriotic names that masked their identities and agenda while spending millions to influence elections. The only place that the "dark money" groups had to leave a paper trail: the TV stations where they buy their ads. Because federal law requires that political advertisers identify the principals of the organizations when they buy the ads, the FCC files suddenly became an important avenue for following the big political bucks to their source. Previously, that  had been available only to those able to personally visit TV stations  and rifle through paper files. Putting it online has obvious public interest benefits, as evidenced by Political Ad Sleuth, the tool that Sunlight, in partnership with Free Press, built for sorting, collating and tracking the FCC files as well as those contributed by volunteers visiting stations not covered by the FCC order.

What online ad files let us see

The significance of this tool is underscored elsewhere on this blog today, in a post where Sunlight's Liz Bartolomeo uses Ad Sleuth to catalogue the many so-called "issue ads" that have been aired already in this "non-election" year. These are ads which we might not know about absent the Ad Sleuth and the FCC database that powers it; "issue ads" don't have to be reported to the Federal Election Commission, even though some of them, like the ones that have run in Kentucky this year, clearly are targeting political candidates.

What makes the FCC's creation of the online database even more kudos-worthy: Broadcasters have been fighting it for decades. It was only because a federal court ruled in the FCC's favor that the public got what little information it did before the 2012 election.

Right now, the FCC is considering whether to broaden the scope of its online database, which currently covers only network affiliates in the nation's top 50 markets, to cover all of the nation's 2,000+ TV stations. Broadcasters continue to resist. Behind the scenes, they're arguing for a rollback of even the 2012 levels of disclosure.

They should not be allowed to use the check-scamming incident as an excuse to narrow the small peephole the FCC has created on the workings of big money in the post-Citizens United world.

If the broadcasters try, the FCC would do well to remember that what made political ad buyers' information public was not the online database; it was the broadcasters themselves. Even before the FCC began posting files online, it was possible for anyone to go into a local TV station, pull files and see whatever the station saw fit to include in them -- often including signed checks and bank account numbers. The problem was so well known and widespread that Free Press, which recruited volunteers to help gather ad files for Political Ad Sleuth, proactively sought to eliminate personal and business information from anything we uploaded.

It's the broadcasters who left the checks and bank information in the files and its the broadcasters who should remove them so the rest of the material -- which contains information of public interest -- can be posted online.

How about creating a job?

That low hum you hear is the poor, poor broadcasters, exhausted from counting all the money that rolled in during last year's campaign, wailing over the "onerous paperwork burden" about to descend upon them.

Really? Is it that hard to organize files to separate what should be private from what should be public?  Keep in mind that the stations amassing these files are also amassing tens of thousands of dollars from political advertisers who at peak season are packing the airwaves so tight that one Ohio station manager who told me he had to rearrange his on-air schedule the weekend before the election to accommodate all the ads.

As the paperwork available on Political Ad Sleuth reveals, many of these advertisers are paying tens of thousands of dollars for what's effectively a few minutes of airtime. For the cost of just a few of these buys, TV stations could easily hire a part-time employee to process the files at high political season. How about creating a job with some of those advertising dollars instead of coming up with reasons why you can't  your viewers information they need to make informed voting decisions?

Welcome to the 21st century

And here's another crazy 21st century idea:  How about submitting the electronic data directly from accounting systems? That's a process that the stations could control to protect clients' account information. It would be far more secure and efficient than the current system, which involves turning computerized data into paper (or paper facsimiles known as PDFs) that are then uploaded to the FCC, adding a needless layer of work and opacity to the process. It is the scanned files that include checks and bank routing numbers, so eliminating them could eliminate the vulnerability that scammers are exploiting.

Transparency bonus: Uploading data in a machine readable format would allow the FCC to publish it online in ways that are easier to search and aggregate -- enabling jounalists and the public to easily sum up how much a particular group or groups are spending.

In the last election cycle, at least $300 million was dumped into the political campaign by groups that are required to give no information about who's behind them except what they file at TV stations. Though the next congressional elections are more than a year away, the onslaught of ads from outside groups already is beginning, as Sunlight has documented with the help of Political Ad Sleuth.

The FCC has bent over backwards to make the process of posting ad files as easy as possible for broadcasters -- good strategy for winning last year's court case. But the commission shouldn't buy any more excuses. The information in the online file is too important to lose.

(Contributing: Daniel Cloud and Jacob Fenton)