Investigative
7:30 am
Mon May 28, 2012

Money Talks: Political spending hiding in the file cabinet

Broadcasters are fighting a new rule to disclose more about who’s buying political ads. The Federal Communications Commission wants TV stations to post information about the political ads they air on a government website.

That will make it a lot easier to find out what groups are spending money to influence voters.

Recently, I met Rich Robinson in the parking lot of his office in Lansing. He was taking me on a little trip.

Robinson is with Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a watchdog group which keeps track of money and politics in the state.

 “We’re going to Grand Rapids. We’re going to stop at three television stations there and one in Kalamazoo to collect records of political ad buys from the public files of those TV stations,” Robinson told me as we started driving down the interstate.

Robinson makes these trips to TV stations pretty often –as often as once every week closer to election day. He wants to look at the paperwork that reveals who’s buying political ads and how much they’re spending.

“These are records that won’t be reported anywhere otherwise. They’re not reported to the Federal Election Commission as electioneering communications because they fall outside of the window of 30 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election. So, this is the only way to get these records.”

So, basically…if a non-profit runs ads throughout the year… except a month just before a primary election or a couple of months before the general election… that political group doesn’t have to report a dime of money spent on political advertising anywhere. But the TV stations have to keep track of it. And… put it in their public files.

So, if you want to know who’s spending what, you visit the TV station.

It’s not very convenient. Not very many people bother.

The FCC, which regulates broadcasters, recently ruled the TV stations need to start making information about those political ad purchases available online.

The FCC is setting up a website where stations will upload their political files.

That way there will be one site online managed by the FCC where anyone with a computer can find who’s buying political ads and how much they’re spending.

Many broadcasters are not happy about this new rule. The National Association of Broadcasters has filed a lawsuit in federal court to stop it. Other broadcast groups have opposed some or all of the rule as originally proposed.

Michigan Radio and some of its staff, including this reporter, are affiliated with some of those groups, including the Radio-Television-Digital News Association and the Michigan Association of Broadcasters.

 Karole White is the President and CEO of that state broadcasters' group."

She says this puts TV stations in a bad position because now competitors will see what a station charges for advertising.

“It’s going to put the prices that each broadcaster charges for their ads right out there so that all the competition and everyone can see and easily extrapolate," White said.

LG: Well, they can do that right now by simply walking over to the station and looking in their file cabinet.

“Oh, for the rates? They can. However, you’re not going to find a local competitor actually going into another station. Number two is that this is not going to be an easy, simple thing for broadcasters to do. They’re going to have to have somebody that’s going to have to do that.”

LG: The receptionists and the people who take care of the public files that I’ve talked to tell me this can be as simple as a couple of hours transferring these forms to pdf and then uploading them to the FCC.

“Well, I don’t know, you know, who you’re talking to at the station. They might want to their general manager. The general managers from the major markets of Detroit and Grand Rapids have told me on the board of directors that it was going to take them a considerable amount of time,” White replied.

Now, as for the ad rates, some watchdog groups say they really don’t care about knowing the cost per ad. They just want to know how much the political groups are buying overall. Originally this public file rule was written for fairness. It was designed to make sure one candidate wasn’t getting a better deal than another.  It’s political groups and candidates who want to know what each ad costs.

So, the FCC says if it’s in the public file now, it should be on the new website.

Supporters of more openness regarding politics and money say the broadcasters already reveal all the information, so what’s the big deal?  

Bob Biersack is a Senior Fellow with the Center for Responsive Politics which runs the OpenSecrets.org website.

“This information has always been in the kind of generic, silly sense, but extraordinarily hard to get. You had to go to each of the stations and someone on the staff at the station had to take the time to pull these files out of file cabinets and either make copies for you or allow you to sit there and review them, amazingly time consuming, expensive, and silly. In a world where now the definition of public information is really that information is available in this online vehicle,” Biersack said.

The watchdog groups note, when TV stations are making tens-of-millions of dollars in political advertising in an election year in Michigan alone, the effort to put the information online is not going to cost the broadcasters to any great degree.

Now, when the new FCC rule is implemented –probably in a couple of months- there still will be some big gaps in that online information.

  • Only the 50 largest TV markets will be required to comply right now. In Michigan, that’s Detroit and Grand Rapids TV stations.
  • Smaller markets won’t have to comply for two more years.
  • The rule does not require radio stations to post political ad buys on the website.
  • The FCC has no authority over cable TV, so political ads for cable channels at the national and local levels don’t have to be uploaded to the FCC’s coming website.
  • Political ads on the internet are not subject to the rule.

And there’s another big gap.

The rule only covers federal candidates and national issues.

Ads bought to support or oppose state candidates or statewide ballot initiatives don’t have to be on the FCC website.

In fact, right now broadcasters don’t have to report those kinds of political ad buys. But many do.

Rich Robinson with Michigan Campaign Finance Network says most stations feel the state political ad information is just as important as the federal information.

“Stations have the prerogative to withhold issue ads about state candidates. That’s pretty uncommon, but some of them have done it and some of them have done it under pressure from particular ad agencies, working for particular clients. So, that piece of it may not be included in what becomes this web-published thing and that’s still a problem,” Robinson explained.

So even if the new FCC rule survives a court challenge by the broadcasters, watchdogs such as Rich Robinson will still have to drive from station to station, inspecting those paper files in the file cabinets. There’s still no other way to get the whole picture of how political groups are buying ads to influence the voters in Michigan.

Rich Robinson says even with all its shortcomings, the FCC political files website will be good.

“The access to these data will be much broader now and I think that’s a very positive development. More people should be looking at these data.”

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