Broadcasters’ Public Files Should Be Published Online (and it’s absurd that we’re even having this conversation)


Luigi passed along a couple of links to a great/infuriating On the Media segment about the new rules the FCC is considering related to the online disclosure of political ad purchases.

To run through the issue quickly: every broadcast station is required to keep a “public file” of paper records related to campaign ad purchases. These records show basic information about how an ad was purchased, who bought it and when it aired. As the name implies, the file is available for public inspection, but only if you show up at the station and ask for it.

The FCC has proposed a rule that would require the public file to be posted online. We feel that this is an obvious and overdue step, and have submitted comments to the rulemaking saying as much. After all, it’s 2012–it’s absurd to claim that information is “public” if it isn’t also online. And this information is particularly important: with Citizens United enabling a new flood of money into our political system–with less acountability!–keeping track of the ways in which wealth is deployed to move political opinion is more important than ever. The public file is a vital source of this kind of information.

The first OTM segment, which features Steven Waldman, does a good job of explaining all of this. The second one mostly just makes your blood boil. In it, Jack Goodman, a lobbyist for the National Association of Broadcasters, makes the case that posting the public file online would represent an onerous burden on broadcast stations.

Clearly, this is nonsense. As Waldman notes, Goodman is claiming that his would be “the first industry to use the internet to become less efficient.” I’ve seen what the public file looks like. Yeah, there’s a bunch of stuff in there, but obviously not too much to fax to the FCC once a day (or, preferably, enter into a modern electronic records-keeping system–perhaps one supplied by the FCC–instead of continuing to record everything on paper like it’s 1970).

But forget for a moment how ridiculous Goodman’s argument is. Consider how outrageous it is that he’s even making it. This is one of the underappreciated pathologies that lobbying produces. If you’re an organization like the NAB and you have a staff lobbyist, whenever an issue comes along–however minor–your lobbyist can be counted on to make a fuss about it. That’s what they’re paid to do, right? Here we have a disclosure burden that is basically the bureaucratic equivalent of your office manager announcing that expense reports have to be filed using a webform. Yet for some reason we’re now having a national conversation about it.

It’s absolutely dumbfounding to have an effort to make money in politics more transparent weighed against someone not wanting to use the fax machine. And yet here we are. That’s the magic of the lobbying industry.