At its meeting today, the Federal Communications Commission adopted a rule requiring the top four broadcasters in the biggest fifty media markets to make their “political files” public. The political file includes information about individuals and groups that purchase political ads on the station. In this era of Super PACs and dark money groups flooding the airwaves with ads, the political files could contain important information allowing reporters and voters to better follow the money behind this year’s campaigns. The political file is supposed to be public, but, before now, “public” has meant paper documents buried in some file cabinet in a broadcaster’s office. By requiring the information to be put online on the FCC website, this ruling takes the political files out of the dark ages and recognizes that public means online.
We are hopeful that the ruling marks an exciting opening salvo in the fight for broadcaster transparency and is not the end of the story. For while the ruling puts information about political ad buys online for the first time, the coverage is incomplete. As our reporting group pointed out, 160 media markets will be exempt from making their information public this election year. Those missing markets include some key presidential battleground states, as well as states and districts with close congressional campaigns. Moreover, by limiting the coverage to ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, the ruling omits coverage for political advertising on Spanish language television that could be especially important this year. Coverage should expand in 2014, when the FCC has said all stations must be prepared to put their political files on line.
When we submitted comments to the FCC on this issue, we urged the commission to ensure that the information from the political files be put online in a searchable, sortable format. Unfortunately, the FCC did not heed this important recommendation. It will allow broadcasters to file images of their political file, making the information much less useful than if it were readily able to be parsed and analyzed.
Despite the shortcomings of the new rule, the FCC should be applauded for not bowing down to broadcaster demands that the agency adopt a bifurcated system where the only information available online would have been redacted and aggregated. We hope they show the same strength a year from now, when the commission hears from the broadcasters on whether the rule is burdensome or anticompetitive.
Television broadcasters will make billions from political ad sales this year. They will undoubtedly use some of that cash to lobby to push back on the rules the FCC adopted today. Transparency advocates should push just as hard to ensure that all broadcasters in all media markets, regardless of size, post their complete political files in a searchable format. Time will tell whether this ruling is the start of something big, or if it’s just enough to take the issue off the table.