Eshoo Voices Support for FCC Proposal to Require Online Posting of TV ‘Political Files’
By Paul Barbagallo
As expected, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), the ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, has come out in strong support of a proposal by the Federal Communications Commission to require television broadcasters to make their “political files” accessible to the public online.
The proposal, which the FCC will vote on at its April 27 meeting, essentially would force TV stations to upload all their paper files detailing when political commercials air, in which markets, and how much each campaign paid for each spot. The stations must maintain such records now, but only in paper form.
“I support your proposed rulemaking because it merely brings this disclosure online and into the 21st century,” Eshoo wrote in a letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski April 16. “Where technical limitations might have made widespread availability of the public file infeasible in 1950, the failure to do so in 2012–using the internet–is inexcusable.”
Under Section 315 of the Communications Act, amended by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, broadcasters are required to keep a “political file” reflecting all requests “made by or on behalf of a legally qualified candidate for public office” or that “communicates messages relating to any political matter of national importance, including a legally qualified candidate, any election to federal office, or a national legislative issue of public importance.”
Perhaps most important, the political file reveals how the television station responded to such requests–if a request was granted and, if so, the schedule of the times purchased, the times that the spots actually aired, the rates charged, the “classes” of time purchased, and whether a station granted any free time to a candidate.
Eshoo Wants Better Disclosure
On Capitol Hill, Eshoo has been a consistent advocate for increased disclosure of political ad spending.
Last month, she tried unsuccessfully to insert an amendment into the Republican-sponsored FCC Process Reform Act (H.R. 3309) that would have required groups placing political ads on TV to disclose contributors of $10,000 or more.
Speaking on the House floor, Eshoo said the new disclosure would act as a “disinfectant.”
“There’s something very sick about our system today,” Eshoo said of so-called super PACs, which under law can receive unlimited contributions to fund “independent expenditures” and take up the slack for political campaigns. “We do not know who is contributing, how much they are contributing, or whether foreign countries are involved in this.”
Continuing along those lines, Eshoo noted in her letter to Genachowski that there is “no substitute for the information the [political] file holds.”
“The … file plays a critical role in promoting transparency both in elections and in the use of our public airwaves,” she wrote.
The Federal Election Commission does maintain online records on political advertising, but only “electioneering communications”–ads referring to candidates–and independent expenditures–ads advocating for the election or defeat of a candidate. Generally, the information available on the FEC’s website provides an overall look at how much money campaigns spend.
The information available in broadcasters’ political files is far more granular–and potentially more useful–but is more difficult to access, as interested parties must travel physically to each TV station to inspect the documents.
The National Association of Broadcasters, the main Washington lobby for local stations, has been advocating against the new requirement, citing, among other things, the administrative burden of making available online potentially millions of pages of documents that are now available only in hard copy.
Rules May Benefit Super PACs
While the broadcasters and some Republican members have lined up in opposition, the rules themselves are actually seen as benefiting super PACs, which are not permitted by law to coordinate advertising efforts with the candidate running for office. Instead of sending a volunteer to retrieve every political file from every local TV station–so as to better coordinate media strategy–a super PAC would be able to simply log on to a new FCC-hosted web site.
Eshoo said that creating an FCC site for disclosures, rather than requiring broadcasters to create a new site, is “an encouraging start.”
She also made it clear that she would support future action to bring the public files of cable and satellite providers online as well.
As drafted, the FCC’s rules would apply only to television broadcasters, even though satellite TV providers and cable operators also must maintain the same files at their local offices (42 TCM, 3/5/12).
For Eshoo’s letter, see http://eshoo.house.gov/images/stories/4.16.12_Public_Files_Letter_to_FCC.pdf