The question isn’t why broadcasters don’t want to provide their political files online (they are willing to do this), but why defenders of the FCC rule insist on requiring the online display of stations’ ad rates? After all, one of the main goals of the campaign finance laws is to provide, in a timely way, information about candidate and issue expenditures. It’s not the goal of these laws to compel TV stations to divulge their competitive secrets about ad rates and the like.
The FCC’s recently minted rule requiring certain broadcast stations to post their political ad files online rather than, as is currently the case, in their local public inspection files, is not the kind of issue that is likely to stir the nation’s passions. Regardless of how challenges to the rule pan out, very few people are going to run off and join the circus if things don’t go a certain way.
Still, it’s a more interesting issue than, on its face, it would appear to be — and there’s evidence that defenders of the rule, along with reporters, are not paying attention to some of the finer points being made in opposition to it.
As of today there are three separate challenges to the rule — one at the FCC, one at the Office of Management and the Budget and one in D.C.’s Circuit Court of Appeals. The petition for reconsideration at the FCC, signed by 11 TV station groups, is the most nuanced of the complaints.
As with the others, the FCC petitioners are mostly concerned about having to reveal online their spot-by-spot ad rates, but with this difference: The petitioners propose to aggregate such data in a way that would not reveal their ad rates but would actually make it easier for everyone, journalists included, to understand who is contributing to whom, and in what amounts, and in addition to include online the same kind of information for state and local candidates, something the FCC rule does not require.
Why the broadcasters are opposed to having to reveal online their political ad rates, when they already provide this information in their local public files, takes a little explaining.
Currently, broadcasters are required by law to offer political advertising to candidates for federal office at the “lowest unit rate,” which is the rate they charge their best commercial advertisers. But this data is not that user friendly, and in any event requires that someone physically go to a TV station for the purpose. (For anyone so disposed, the cumbersomeness in this only grows, as the date of an election draws near, because TV stations update their political files more frequently at that time.)
Campaign representatives sometimes do check these files to ensure that their candidates are not being charged more than their opponents, but commercial advertisers do not, and that fact touches on one of the main worries among the broadcasters: They fear that if they have to reveal online their spot-by-spot ad rates, some of their commercial advertisers (knowing that the political rates are based on what the stations charge their best commercial customers) will demand these rates for themselves.
It’s also bothersome to broadcasters that their media competitors, both in broadcasting and cable, would have access to this information, and it’s further been suggested that, as written, the FCC rule may encourage trial lawyers to file frivolous lawsuits against TV stations on behalf of losing candidates.
So in the case of the FCC petitioners, the question isn’t why broadcasters don’t want to provide their political files online (they are willing to do this), but why defenders of the FCC rule insist on requiring the online display of stations’ ad rates?
After all, one of the main goals of the campaign finance laws is to provide, in a timely way, information about candidate and issue expenditures. It’s not the goal of these laws to compel TV stations to divulge their competitive secrets about ad rates and the like.
When asked about the unwillingness of the FCC to approve this simple modification to its rule—the commission had this suggestion before it prior to their vote in late April — a communications lawyer prominently involved in the matter said that, in the wake of the Citizens United decision, everything touching on campaign finance has taken on a kind of “religious aspect,” such that advocates of campaign finance laws are these days unwilling even to grant such harmless accommodations as those presented by the petitioners.
Notable by their absence from the FCC petition are the station groups owned and operated by the Big 4 TV networks. Lawyers for the petitioners note that the networks supported the suggested “aggregation” approach prior to the FCC’s vote, and aver that they support the petition now.
That may be right, but if so it’s hard to confirm. It may be, instead, that the networks don’t like the odds that the FCC will accommodate the petitioners, or that they are unhappy about the petitioners proposed inclusion of political ad information re candidates for local office.
For its part, the National Association of Broadcasters has appealed the FCC’s rule to the OMB, claiming that the obligation to put the political files online is unduly burdensome, and in conflict with the Paperwork Reduction Act.
There may well be real merit in these other concerns, and in the arguments to be fleshed out in the broadcasters’ lawsuit in the D.C. Circuit, but it’s the modest proposal made by the FCC petitioners that shines the brightest light on how hard it is these days to forge reasonable compromises in a deeply divided nation.
Patrick Maines is president of The Media Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes free speech, sound communications policies and journalistic excellence. The views expressed above are his alone, and not those of The Media Institute, its board, contributors or advisory councils.