Today, the Federal Communications Commission voted to open a rulemaking calling for online disclosure of information that broadcasters collect about the political ads they air. If robust disclosure rules are put in place before the 2012 elections get into full swing, it will be a huge victory for the public, who has a right to know who is paying for the avalanche of political ads that will blast from their televisions in the months ahead.
Political advertising has an overwhelming impact on the election process. Making public information about who is paying for political ads, which candidates the ads support or oppose, where they are being run, and how much is being spent on them has always been in the public’s interest. In the post Citizens United era, where it is not only easy but commonplace to mislead the public about the source of dark money behind a political ad, such disclosure is even more important, and fully in-line with the Supreme Court’s embrace of transparency in that decision. If the FCC adopts a meaningful online disclosure system without delay, it will secure its leadership in using technology for information gathering and disclosure, setting an example for other agencies to follow.
A searchable FCC database of ad buys would not only enable the public to go directly to the FCC’s website to ascertain who is behind the nasty, misleading political ad that just interrupted their enjoyment of Dancing with the Stars, but would allow for re-use of the data and in-depth analysis by local journalists, scholars and others who could analyze whether the ad money being spent on races in Kansas is coming from New York, whether more money is being spent by outside groups than the candidates themselves, and where races are heating up as determined by spending.
Efforts to make information about political advertising more publicly accessible have been thwarted before, and certainly the National Association of Broadcasters is likely to object to rules that they will claim are burdensome. But that powerful special interest should not be given a free ride this time around. The public has a right to know the true source of the funding behind the political ads they see, and broadcasters across the country have an obligation not to be complicit in the conspiracy that keeps the public in the dark.