By Kathy Kiely
Americans rely on their local TV stations for news. But at some of those stations, an examination by the Sunlight Foundation of newly accessible public records reveals, the management has been helping to cover the tracks of stealth committees that last year financed hundreds of millions of dollars in negative campaign ads.
We know this because the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had enough guts and legal savvy to force broadcasters to put political ad records online in time for last year’s election. Sadly, the TV watchdogs don’t seem to have quite as much enthusiasm when it comes to enforcing the law that the FCC database shows many advertisers — and the broadcasters who are taking their money — to be systematically flouting.
The 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act could not be more explicit: Any organization airing an ad about a political candidate or issue must provide the television station with “a list of the chief executive officers or member of the executive committee or of the board of directors,” the relevant section says. The TV stations, in turn, must make that information available for public inspection.
Up until last August, that inspection could only be accomplished painstakingly and piecemeal, with in-person visits to individual stations (there are more than 2,000 nationwide). Now that we have the FCC’s database — and Political Ad Sleuth, a Sunlight tool that makes it more readily searchable and sortable — it’s easy to see just how often TV stations allow advertisers to get away with considerably less disclosure.
In one case Sunlight found, a station accepted money from advertisers who have flatly refused to provide legally required information. In others, stations have allowed the organizations actually buying the ads to hide behind the names of media buyers.
Enforcing the law is especially crucial now. Since the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United, big spending committees with vague names, mysterious agendas and just about zero accountability have sprung up across the political landscape like kudzu. Thinly disguised as “social welfare organizations,” these committees have non-profit status that allows them to evade disclosing donors or even registering with the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
That’s why last year’s FCC order represented a rare victory for campaign finance transparency. Online posting of political advertising files — the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act’s requirement that they include identifying information about advertisers — gave journalists and others interested in following the money an opportunity to figure out who was trying to buy last year’s election.
Those investigations can only be as good as the information in the files, however, and that turns out to be pretty spotty.
It’s easy to see why: The TV stations have no motivation to bite the hand of the advertisers that feed them (to the tune of $3.2 billion in the last campaign, according to ad monitoring agency Kantar/CMAG). And members of the FCC may be suffering battle fatigue after fighting broadcasters in court to get even the minimal online disclosure they made last year. To undercut broadcasters’ legal argument that online filing amounted to an “onerous paperwork burden,” the FCC created a no-excuses drag-and-drop system for uploading. It’s easy on the broadcasters, but hard on the public, which has been left with a chaos of unstandardized forms that are hard to compare and reconcile, as anyone who has rummaged around in Political Ad Sleuth can attest.
In a sense, this less-than optimal compromise represents what you get when you try to install a light bulb with a screwdriver. The agencies that are supposed to police campaigns — the FEC and Congress — are too hopelessly deadlocked to do anything. So voters are left hoping that other entities with less direct authority over election can do something about the crass auction that American political campaigns have become. Will the FCC, the IRS and even the Securities and Exchange Commission step in where the FEC and the nation’s elected officials fear to tread?
As former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once famously said, “you go to war with the Army you have. . . not the Army you might want.” Here’s hoping these troops, however reluctantly drafted, have the will to win.