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WCPO Hit With Complaint Over Issue Ad IDs

The Campaign Legal Center reiterates its charge that many stations are not complying with rules to make available online information about their political advertising, including who is paying for the spots. It adds the Scripps-owned Cincinnati ABC affiliate to its earlier list and urges the FCC to move before the election “to ensure transparency in our electoral system and to protect voters’ right to know by whom they are being persuaded.”

In a filing with the FCC today, E.W. Scripps-owned WCPO Cincinnati (DMA 36) was charged with not identifying the sponsors of political advertising “in 16 out of 17 of the non-candidate issue ad entries in [WCPO’s] 2016 online public file.” The filing came from the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, the Sunlight Foundation and the Benton Foundation (collectively, CLC) and were filed on their behalf by the Georgetown University Law Center Institute for Public Representation.

In addition, the groups told the FCC that this case is representative of a larger problem across the industry that it has earlier raised with the commission. In a letter to the commission today, CLC claimed that “broadcasters have evidently drawn the accurate conclusion that they face no consequences for failing to comply with the most important element of the public file rules, which is the disclosure of information about who pays for political advertisements.”

On May 1, 2014, CLC and Sunlight filed complaints against 11 stations for failing to maintain complete and accurate public files related to political advertisements, as required by Section 315. The commission’s staff issued letters of inquiry to each of the licensees, and on May 12, 2014, the FCC issued a statement that it “take[s] political file complaints seriously and anticipate resolving these quickly.”

Specifically, CLC today urged the FCC to:

  • “Consistent with your May 12, 2014, public statement that you ‘anticipate resolving these quickly…,’ grant the 11 complaints filed in May, 2014 alleging widespread violations of the commission’s online public file rules.
  • “Before the 2016 election, grant the complaint filed today by CLC against Scripps Media Inc., licensee of WCPO-TV in Cincinnati, Ohio, alleging wholesale noncompliance in 16 out of 17 of the non-candidate issue ad entries in its 2016 online public file.
  • “Issue a Public Notice detailing the responsibilities of broadcasters in maintaining public files relating to paid political advertisements under Section 315.
  • “Abandon your policy of limiting public file enforcement to instances where members of the public file complaints and, instead, conduct your own investigations when there is reason to believe that broadcasters, cable operators or DBS licensees are not complying with their public file obligations. The materials accompanying this letter give your staff numerous leads which the staff should pursue without waiting for a compliant from the public.”

CLC said today that “despite [the FCC’s] strong warning and assurance of swift action by the commission, [regarding the 2014 complaints], these complaints have still not been resolved, nearly two-and-a-half years later. CLC urges you to demonstrate that you mean what you said by immediately acting on these complaints.”

CLC went on to say that its complaint today against WCPO “demonstrates that 16 of WCPO’s 17 filings pertaining to 2016 non-candidate issue ads were incomplete or inaccurate with regards to the requirements of Section 315. Moreover, the complaint also shows that another station in the same market, WLWT, easily performed the necessary due diligence to comply with the rules with respect to several of the very same ads.”

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The organizations add that with the 2016 election less than two months away, they urge the FCC “to take immediate action to address this widespread noncompliance,” and to “publically renew your admonition that ‘[a]ccuracy is just as important as accessibility in providing this kind of information to the American public,’ and to issue a public notice detailing the responsibilities of broadcasters in maintaining public files relating to paid political advertisements under Section 315.

Scripps issued the following statement: “We are looking into the report from The Campaign Legal Center. WCPO-TV takes great care in maintaining its political files as required in Section 315 of the Communications Act.”


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