Accountable Political Ads Now

The FCC has legal authority, right now, to require full sponsor disclosure. It has the legal obligation to do so and it has a public interest responsibility to fulfill.

Yesterday Common Cause, the Sunlight Foundation, and the Campaign Legal Center, represented by the Institute for Public Representation at the Georgetown University Law Center, filed formal complaints against 18 television stations in four states, asking the Federal Communications Commission to order these broadcasters to make on-air disclosures of the true identity of the sponsors of political ads appearing on their stations. The three organizations also sent letters informing more than 100 other stations of the true sponsor of certain Independence USA PAC ads they had run. It should have been easy for the stations to do this because the founder and sole funder of this organization is Michael Bloomberg.

Most voters, be they Republican, Democrat, Independent, or whatever, are sick and tired of listening to the hundreds of anonymous and often misleading ads that bombard us during campaign season. (Does campaign season ever end?) Oh, at the bottom of your screen you may see “Brought to You by Citizens for a Red, White and Blue America” or “The Committee for Purple Mountain Majesty and Amber Waves of Grain”, or some other patriotic moniker, but these “disclosures” don’t disclose anything about who the real sponsor is. It may be a liberal, a conservative, or any other special interest group inside or outside that framework. And if an ad is trying to convince you that, say, global warming is a hoax, voters need to know that a chemical or energy company is actually underwriting it. That company might be dumping sludge into a near-by waterway or pollution into the air even as the ad is running on your screen, but you’d never know it.

In the 2012 election cycle, more than $3 billion went into television and cable political ads. Spending during the 2016 campaigns will easily top that, reaching perhaps $5 billion or $6 billion, maybe even more. Stations will make more money running political ads than they will on automobile ads—and that’s a bundle!

Why are these complaints directed to the FCC? Because the agency has legal authority, right now, to require full sponsor disclosure. The law has been on the books since the 1930s. The Commission applies the requirement to commercial sponsors but not to political sponsors, in spite of the fact that the rule clearly encompasses both. As far as the Commission ever got was to state formally, years ago, that citizens have a right to know by whom they are being persuaded. Unfortunately the FCC never got around to making sure this right was implemented. It has been petitioned more than once and asked in sundry ways to enforce accountable ads. I pushed for this as hard as I could when I served on the FCC, and I have joined hands with many citizen groups since then to make it happen.

Of course there is opposition. Broadcasting and cable fear that honest ads might lead to fewer ads and less in their coffers. Corporate and dark money interests hide in the shadows of anonymous attacks. Even our major newspapers shy away from covering the issue, perhaps looking more toward their bottom-line interest than the public interest. Some of them own other media properties, and I well remember when I was doing battle at the FCC against loosening our media ownership caps, how little coverage Big Media gave the issue, compared to smaller, local, and still-independent media outlets.

The FCC needs to focus on this. It has the legal obligation to do so and it has a public interest responsibility to fulfill. Big money is corrupting our electoral process, strangling our civic dialogue, and endangering American self-government. The agency should respond to the petitions and complaints that have been filed, and indicate if it is going to live up to its obligations or not. It can issue a declaratory ruling to implement the law or request public comment on what tweaks might be needed in the specifics of its rule. With elections approaching, time is of the essence. I fought to have this done by 2010, then 2012, then 2014.

Hopefully the current Commission will act. If it does, we can have Accountable Ads. And that would be a real win for our democracy.

By Michael Copps.