Some of the biggest corporate media owners on the planet are playing a game of “do as I say, not as I do” when it comes to informing the public about who’s behind the political ads we see on TV and hear on radio, and how much they’re paying for the ads.
We’re talking outfits like NBC, USA Today, The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, ABC, and dozens of other media owners, large and small.
They’re actively (and expensively) lobbying the Federal Communications Commission against a measure that would require broadcasters to post data about political ads (who paid for the and how much they paid) to an online site that anybody could check.
We’re hearing the usual crap about why this is such a bad idea, from outfits like Disney, which complained about the logistics and burden (oh, the burden!) of putting information about political ads online. NBC and Fox News told the FCC posting the data online would allow their competitors to get “highly sensitive pricing data.”
The FCC already requires broadcasters to keep exact track of such data, but the way the policy reads now is like something out of the 1950’s: the station must make the political ad data available to the public in the station’s “Public File” – a hard copy of every political ad the station sells, to whom it’s sold, how much it cost, and who paid for it. The Public File is quite literally a file cabinet (or part of a file cabinet) where the station must keep its FCC license, the names of the owners of the station, letters and correspondence from the public about program content, and – all the political ad information, and a bunch of other stuff. This “Public File” must by law be available for ANY citizen to inspect, at ANY time during regular business hours, without an appointment.
Want to make a broadcast station manager nervous? Stroll into their lobby and tell the receptionist you’re there to inspect the station’s Public File.
Oh, and that “highly sensitive pricing data” NBC, Disney, and Fox whined about? Another open secret is that by FCC regulation (since the public owns the airwaves), the station is allowed only to charge the lowest ad rate to any political organization. “Lowest one-time unit rate”, in the lingo of the broadcasters. So, those horrid attack ads you see in prime-time every night – political organizations are getting one whale of a bargain on the price, because the station can charge them only the lowest rate they offer. Everybody else pays higher rates for prime time, but political organizations get the ads, by law, at the lowest price, no matter what time slot they run in.
It’s also no secret that broadcasters and cable TV outlets make a ton of money from political ads, even though they’re sold at the lowest rate. In 2008, the only thing that kept a significant number of local radio and TV stations from going under in the recession was the revenue from all the political ads that ran. Here in Wisconsin, political ad revenue is the life-blood of broadcasters, with the recalls accounting for a highly significant part of the station’s income.
Organizations like The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign do yeoman’s work in collecting all the political advertising data from stations, compiling it, and making it available to the public online.
And the organizations that are so quick to send a news crew to some offending politician’s door, to demand transparency in government, and to editorialize about the public’s need to have free access to political information – these are among the loudest voices of those who are lobbying the FCC against implementing a simple and common-sense rule about public access to political ad information.