A TV ad-buying company with close ties to Republican Party leaders reserved a whopping 1,326 spots in the Denver market this fall, but the station receiving the $740,070 contract removed it from public view when a reporter tried to learn who was footing the bill.
The deleted ad reservation at Denver’s KMGH Channel 7 came from Target Enterprises, a Los Angeles-based firm whose client list includes top Republican candidates and well-known conservative groups. Target is one of the most adamant opponents of efforts by the Federal Communications Commission and political accountability groups, including the Sunlight Foundation, to make public information about who is buying political ads.
Disclosure rules require details about requests for ads that target federal candidates, but not issues that are purely local. There’s little enforcement of these rules, though, so national advertisers often file paperwork that erroneously claims their ads aren’t national. Earlier this year, Sunlight and Campaign Legal Center with help Georgetown University’s Institute for Public Representation filed a dozen complaints about TV stations leaving out these details required for ads that are national in scope — including one against KMGH.
So far this cycle, the only ads that Target has bought at KMGH have been national in nature — attack spots against Sen. Mark Udall, a Democrat who is considered one of his party’s most vulnerable candidates for reelection this fall. It’s unclear what the ads on the vanished document (which Sunlight managed to unearth thanks to Google’s cache) are about. A lawyer for the station said he didn’t know. The ad documents that were posted went a step farther to hide details by omitting even the name of the group paying for the ads. Instead, the advertiser was simply listed as “various B” on the ad order.
Widening battle for disclosure
The battle for disclosure will widen next month, when more than 2,000 television stations across the country will begin posting their political ad files online. Currently, only about 230 stations in the nation’s top 50 markets are required to do so. At the rest of the stations, the public files are available only to individuals who visit the station to view the files in person. Sunlight makes the online files — plus others uploaded by volunteers — searchable at Politicaladsleuth.com.
The FCC has argued that posting the files online modernizes a system that up until now, has provided public access in name only. But there continues to be considerable opposition.
Two years ago, when the FCC first ordered network affiliates in the top 50 TV markets to post political ad files online, Target filed a lengthy written protest. Target, which described itself in its brief as a “Republican-oriented media placement company,” said it “opposes the requirement to place detailed political spending online in real-time.”
Target has done more than just ask for less data to be released. The company eschews the disclosure form created by the National Association of Broadcasters for political ad buys. Instead, Target sometimes uses its own form that leaves out information legally required. Target’s omissions include: the name of the candidate or issue mentioned, as well as the name of the political group that’s paying for the ad to run.
The firm’s Denver buy, first flagged in The Colorado Independent by journalist Sandra Fish, was eye-popping not only for its size — it’s the biggest single political ad reservation KMGH has uploaded this election cycle — but also for its the lack of disclosure. Left out was any information on who was paying for the ad. The form listed the product description as “undisclosed” and the advertiser as “Various B” as if the buy might be portioned out to various different groups.
Asked about the lack of detail, KMGH sales director Missy Evenson subsequently told Fish in an email: “I am not identifying the purchaser of the $740K ads as they are not candidates and are not of national importance.”
“Wasn’t provided any information”
Target Enterprises didn’t respond to a request for comment.
An outside counsel for KMGH’s corporate parent, Scripps Company, Kenneth C. Howard Jr., said that the original ad buy document was “inadvertently posted.” Howard, a former FCC lawyer who’s now a partner at Washington law firm BakerHostetler, argued that KMGH “wasn’t provided any information about issues or candidates or anything else of the sort of material that triggers the obligation” to include the request for air time in the political file. After station staff realized the document didn’t have to be posted, they took it down, Howard said. He declined to say whether Target Enterprises asked the station to remove the document.
While there are loopholes that would allow Target to evade disclosure to the FCC even if this were a political buy — if the ads concerned a non-federal race, such as the Colorado governor’s election, for instance — it’s easy to see why station employees might have assumed that the Target fall contract belonged in the political file:
- The contract with KMGH begins Sept. 1 and ends Nov. 4 — Election Day;
- Target is an active political ad buyer that touts its partners’ work for prominent Republicans and Republican campaigns;
- The only other ads the group has bought at KMGH since January 2013 are for Americans For Prosperity, Freedom Partners, and the American Energy Alliance, according to documents the station has uploaded to an FCC site. Those three groups are all nonprofit organizations allied with Charles and David Koch, billionaire industrialists who’ve reportedly pledged to raise $290 million through their donor network to boost right-leaning candidates this election cycle. All of the ads airing at KMGH and bought by Target Enterprises–roughly 200 spots that cost about $175,000–have mentioned Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, a Democrat up for reelection this year.
Other stations also are pleading ignorance in arguing they don’t have to disclose the information that the law requires.
At KPHO, a CBS-affiliate in Phoenix, the Young Guns Network reserved about $133,000 worth of political ads to air during two weeks in October. Though the station put these ads in the political file, they haven’t disclosed which candidates the ads will target. “While we have asked what the ads will be about, the organization has not yet told us what their ads will concern,” wrote Art Slusark, a spokesman for corporate parent Meredith Communications, in an email June 6. “As soon as they inform us, we will upload that information to the station’s FCC online political file.”
While KPHO staff claim to be in the dark about who the ads will target, it’s public elsewhere: The Hill reported in May that Young Guns Network — a well-known political organization founded by prominent House Republicans — would be backing Republican Martha McSally, who’s seeking to unseat Democrat Ron Barber in Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District.
The Phoenix and Denver stations are hardly alone in relying on their own understanding of the rules–which have never been interpreted by the courts. In a series of prior posts, Sunlight’s found stations posting incomplete details about the leadership of the ad buying groups and of the candidates named in third-party ads. Earlier this year Sunlight and the Campaign Legal Center filed a dozen complaints about stations lacking details in their online filings, including one about KMGH.