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Campaign Legal Center and Sunlight Foundation file FCC complaints against broadcasters for failure to disclose information on political ads

May 1, 2014

Contact: Jenn Topper 202-742-1520 ext. 226

WASHINGTON -- On Thursday, the Campaign Legal Center and the Sunlight Foundation, represented by the Institute for Public Representation of Georgetown University Law Center, filed complaints with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) against 11 broadcast television stations for failure to publicly disclose legally-required information about sponsors of political ads they aired this year. Without this information, viewers are denied important information about the organizations and individuals seeking to influence their vote through these ads.

The FCC has required broadcast stations to disclose this information in their “political files” for decades. The disclosure requirements were expanded in 2002 with the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. Stations in the top 50 U.S. markets have been required to upload this information into their online public files housed on the FCC website since 2012. Beginning in July 2014, smaller stations will fall under the same requirements.

The complaints stem from reviews of the stations’ online political files, which exposed widespread noncompliance with the disclosure requirements. For example, many stations failed to identify the following:

• the candidate to which the ad refers
• the issue of national importance to which the ad refers
• the chief executive officer or board of directors of the sponsor

The last requirement is especially important when the sponsor is a relatively unknown organization such as the LIBRE Initiative or American Encore. Without the information included in the online political file, viewers are left in the dark as to who is responsible for the ad.

The complaints also show that violations occurred without regard to the political leanings of the sponsor, the geographic location, or the station’s network affiliation. Separate complaints were filed against WDIV (NBC) Detroit; KNXV (ABC) Phoenix; WTVJ (NBC) Miami; WMUR (ABC) Manchester/Boston; WFLA (NBC) Tampa; WTVT (FOX) Tampa; WWJ (CBS) Detroit; KMGH (ABC) Denver; WCNC (NBC) Charlotte; KMSP (FOX) Minneapolis; and WTVD (ABC) Durham. Each complaint includes a link to the ad and the relevant portion of the stations’ online political files.

“These files are often the only way we can track political activities and spending by dark money groups that aren’t required to disclose those activities with the Federal Election Commission,” said Sunlight Foundation Managing Editor Kathy Kiely.

“These complaints may lift the curtain on why the National Association of Broadcasters has fought so hard against putting the political files online,” said Meredith McGehee, Policy Director of the Campaign Legal Center. “In too many cases, the stations and their advertisers failed to comply with the simplest and most basic disclosure requirements. As a result, the public does not have the information it needs to understand who is speaking on the public airwaves and attempting to influence their views on political issues. The information required to be included in the political file allows viewers to assess for themselves the information they are presented with on the air.”

“While it is great that the FCC required stations to make their public inspection files available online, the FCC must now act to ensure that television stations are uploading the required information so that the public can be informed.” said Angela Campbell, Director of the Institute for Public Representation.

To ensure better disclosure and improved compliance with the law, the Public Interest Public Airwaves Coalition (PIPAC), whose members include Campaign Legal Center, Sunlight Foundation and others, will continue to monitor the online files and urge the FCC to require broadcasters to standardize their data in machine-readable formats.

To view the WCNC (NBC) Charlotte complaint, click here.

To view the KMGH (ABC) Denver complaint, click here.

To view the WDIV (NBC) Detroit complaint, click here.

To view the WWJ (CBS) Detroit complaint, click here.

To view the WTVD (ABC) Durham complaint, click here.

To view the KNXV (ABC) Phoenix complaint, click here.

To view the WMUR (ABC) Manchester/Boston complaint, click here.

To view the WTVJ (NBC) Miami complaint, click here.

To view the KMSP (FOX) Minneapolis complaint, click here.

To view the WFLA (NBC) Tampa complaint, click here.

To view the WTVT (FOX) Tampa complaint, click here.

To access the FCC database with all the online political files for the top 50 broadcasters, click here

The Sunlight Foundation is a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for open government globally and uses technology to make government more accountable to all.