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A win for transparency

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The frequency of political ads on local airwaves has increased noticeably in recent weeks. Candidates in Montana's U.S. House and Senate races are dropping tens of thousands of dollars on 30-second spots attacking one another, and super PAC American Crossroads has already secured ad time well into October. But unlike past election cycles, detailed information on those media purchases is now freely available through the Federal Communications Commission's website.

As of July 1, all broadcast television stations nationwide must comply with a 2012 rule requiring online posting of political files—documents that outline ad sponsor, payment and airtime information. Political files have long been open to the public but could only be reviewed in person at individual stations. Bill Allison, editorial director for the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Sunlight Foundation, calls the rule "a huge step forward" for campaign finance transparency.

"Knowing more about who is trying to influence your vote is very important," Allison says.

For the past two years, the rule has only applied to stations in the top 50 broadcast markets in the country. Now local stations like KECI, KPAX and KTMF are regularly releasing political files on the web. KPAX general manager Bob Hermes says the process is taking a little extra time initially, but he feels it's good to have the information more available.

"I wouldn't call it burdensome," he says. "I think it's a good thing."

Yet in Allison's eyes, there is still work to be done. Political files aren't uploaded in a digital format but rather as image files, making searches difficult. And Allison believes some facts are still being hidden from the public. Sunlight—which mines political files for its own public database, Political Ad Sleuth—has already filed a formal complaint with the FCC alleging that 11 broadcast stations failed to disclose information about political ad sponsors this year.

"I still think you can hide an awful lot when you're doing these FCC filings," Allison says, "and if they're not electronic, it's almost like you're looking for a needle in a haystack sometimes."

Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of communications for the National Association of Broadcasters, says his organization is working diligently with broadcasters, advertisers and political consultants to make sure everyone is in full compliance. He acknowledges that the new rule could be more financially burdensome for smaller stations. "There's just no question about that," he says. But the point he finds vexing is the exemption given by the FCC to radio and cable outlets.

"It's a head-scratcher for us," Wharton says. "If this is about good government and disclosing where money is coming from to pay for campaigns, why do you only make it apply to broadcast TV and not to cable companies?"

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