EDITORIAL: Republican subcommittee threatens transparency in broadcast, politics
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Our View: The FCC should remain strong in its effort to preserve transparency in politics and broadcast.
The FCC voted for a rule April 27 that says TV broadcasters must post political ad information online, accessible through the FCC’s website, to reveal the identities of campaign committees, super PACs and nonprofit organizations pledging millions of dollars for ads. The identity of the contributor, the dollar amount of the contribution and when the ad is ran would be posted.
This information is available through public records at TV stations, with the expense of traveling to the station and paying for paper copies, though it would become quick and costless to billions with a click of a mouse via the internet through the FCC’s ruling.
Republicans of the House Appropriations Financial Services subcommittee passed a rider Wednesday that would block the FCC’s April ruling. Without the FCC’s rule, transparency remains threatened, broadcast journalists and politicians contradict their true missions as public servants and a voting population remains inconvenienced and dangerously uninformed during an election year.
The FCC’s rule is imperfect, but still an important milestone in the digital age of information. For the next two years, the rule only applies to affiliates of the four major networks — ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC — in the top 50 markets. These designated market areas, known as DMAs, are large cities, many in metropolitan areas, that are most likely to have a large revenue and a resilient market that can best handle changes in policy. New York, Los Angeles and Chicago topped the list of the top 50 DMAs of 2012 and Oklahoma City, Austin and Louisville were at the bottom.
The FCC’s rule does not require the posting of past political ads. The rule is concerned with the present and focuses on becoming transparent in the coming years.
The FCC’s rule also prescribes ease. It does not require specific formatting requirements for the documents. According to the FCC website, the files should be in either an existing electronic format “or in a simple, easily created electronic format such as .pdf.” In turn, the documents can be quickly uploaded by scanning instead of manual data entry required for a database.
Clearly, the FCC’s rule is considerate and emphasizes a process of ease. Its aim is to lower possible compliance costs for broadcasters while providing accurate information to the public.
Even so, the National Association of Broadcasters filed suit with the FCC two weeks ago, stating that by posting files online, rivals have easy access to price information that could be used against them in selling spots to commercial advertisers. This argument is illogical, though, because a motivated rival could easily request such information from a broadcast station on site.
Why fight against posting the records? In the 21st century when digital records are the preferred method of recording data, it is possible these records are already electronic and in a compatible format. Alternatively, many spreadsheet documents have options to save the file in an online format. If so, the manpower required to make these records accessible to the billions of people who access the internet daily would not be a huge commitment for broadcast stations.
This year being an election year, it is even more important for transparent information so voters can make informed decisions and so judgment isn’t clouded by inaccurate or withheld information.
Broadcast journalists and politicians have ethical obligations to fulfill. Even though public files such as political advertising data are already available at TV stations, by posting the information online, it becomes widely accessible and puts good faith in both media and politics by showing that they have nothing to hide.
Both of these institutions have an inherent commitment to the public to be as transparent as possible. By declining to make information available and transparent, broadcast stations violate the mission of journalism. Broadcast stations should willingly volunteer information that is at their fingertips, without the coercion of the FCC. Instead of taking advantage of freedom of speech and press, broadcast journalists are sweeping key facts under the rug and instead of educating, broadcast journalists are missing key opportunities to present the truth.
What benefit does not removing this transparency obstacle create? Politicians and super PACs are cushioned while the public is in the dark. This is completely counterproductive to each institutions mission to inform and serve the public.
Because the government cannot ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections, a conclusion made after the ruling of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in 2010, corporations should be held accountable for the money they pledge. While The Daily doesn't endorse Citizens United, we do recognize that the FCC, or any other government institution, cannot regulate political speech. However, the FCC should make public the money and corporations involved in political conversations. If the messages are aired on broadcast television, we have a right to understanding the ad’s implications and if the money is spent, we have a right to know how much and where it’s coming from.
Since 95 percent of the highest-rated shows are on broadcast television, the National Association of Broadcasters has an ethical responsibility that trumps their individual interests.
Since politicians play a large part in policy and lawmaking, they also have an ethical responsibility that trumps their individual interests.
After all, we should know not only what the political ad is saying (which is obvious and painfully outright in many cases), but we should also know who is supporting the message and from where the money is coming to run the ad.
Republicans from the subcommittee are on the offensive. The FCC’s new rule was too costly for local television stations and could, in turn, force TV stations to hire more staff, said Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo.
This is despite the low cost to upload the documents. According to the FCC report issued April 27, stations that scan and upload documents in-house can do so for $.10 per page, while stations that outsource can do so for $.50 per page. Based on a $.10 to $.50 range per page, the average cost ranges from $80 to $400 per station.
“In this [financial] context, the cost of uploading these documents are far outweighed by the benefits to the public,” FCC attorney Holly Saurer said.
If we expect politicians to be transparent, we should also expect ad campaigns to be just as transparent. Elected leaders should welcome their term on a transparent platform to ensure their commitment to maintain transparency throughout their term.
If it’s about money, this is an important place for money to go. Ask your representative to support media transparency so America can be informed when it votes.