Washington State's nearly $30 million fight over genetically engineered foods has come to an end. Voters in the Evergreen State said "no" on Initiative 522, striking down a measure that would have mandated labeling of any products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It was the most expensive referendum battle in state history, as powerful chemical and food companies–the vast majority of them from outside the state–squared off with food safety and consumer advocacy groups in a battle with national implications.
However, the public still lacks a complete picture of how, when or on what stations TV advertisements were bought, thanks to differing interpretations of the disclosure regulations for information on political ads.
Generally, the Federal Communications Commission requires broadcast and cable stations to make available to viewers, in their offices, information on who buys political ads and when, in 2012, the FCC began requiring local affiliates of the four largest broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC) in the nation's top-50 media markets to file those disclosures online.
A station’s political ad disclosures contain important information about the total amount a group spends, the number of spots it purchased, and which programs it's advertising on. These contracts offer insight into the tactics of organizations trying to influence political opinion–for example, the demographics targeted by their ads.
However, a review of files collected by Sunlight's Political Ad Sleuth found that there was only one station in the Seattle-Tacoma area that originally disclosed its I-522 ad buys to the FCC. This station — KOMO –showed $3.4 million spent on ads for either side of the issue. How much more was spent buying ads on other stations in the market is unknown.
While advertisements for an elected office must be disclosed, other messages of political matters need only be disclosed if they pertain to "a national legislative issue of public importance." While the referendum on GMO labeling would seem to have a national impact – and has brought in droves of out of state money – the Federal Communications Commission statute is imprecise enough to allow for different interpretations.
"Information on the Political Online Files states that the rule does not cover state and local issue advertising," Pam Pearson, the station manager for local Fox station KCPQ, wrote in an e-mail to Sunlight. "It is our intention to follow the policy and it is my belief that we do."
NBC affiliate KING did not return multiple Sunlight's calls requesting an explanation for their own lack of disclosure. Though, one station that had not previously filed, KIRO shared their contract information on political ad buys after being contacted by Sunlight. Those files may be viewed here
The FCC states that a licensee must “make available for public inspection, a complete record of a request to purchase broadcast time that…communicates a message relating to any political matter of national importance, including…a national legislative issue of public importance.” While the GMO fight has garnered out of state money and national attention, it is a state ballot initiative, which is apparently the reason TV stations have withheld political ad contracts.
The No on 522 Committee raised over $22 million from major chemical and food corporations — almost entirely from out of state interests — according to the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, which they spent on ads aimed at winning over a skeptical public. Polling data shows their efforts were successful in shifting public opinion.
The outgunned "Yes" committee raised nearly $8 million, from Dr. Bronners Magic Soap, food safety advocates and thousands of smaller donors.
The transparency issues in Washington’s ballot fight point to a larger trend for observers trying to track political ad buys.
Matt Wood, Policy Director at the Free Press organization (which partners with Sunlight on the Ad Sleuth tool), stated in an interview that as stations are the ones “on the frontlines, it’s up to their discretion to decide day to day how to comply” with ambiguous regulations — and it's up to observers to decide whether their actions merit a complaint to the FEC.
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