Media Corporations Lobby Against Online Political Advertising Transparency

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    (MintPress) – America’s largest media companies are vehemently opposing a proposition by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that would require media outlets to detail political advertisements run by the company in an online database. Outlets would be required to disclose the purchaser of an ad, when the ad ran and how much the ad was purchased for.

    Media companies say the move is bad for business, as it could give other outlets and advertisers a competitive edge and that it is too time consuming. Proponents, however, say it is important for transparency – the same principle media strives for with the government and other organizations.

    Currently, media companies document the aforementioned information in hard copy form, which is kept at the station or publication. It is available upon public request, but those requests are few and far between. Since October of 2011, only six registered requests were made at CBS’ New York affiliate.

    At issue for media companies is a business model at risk of exploitation. First, an open online source of political ad information would allow media companies to see the asking price of other outlets for ad time, opening the door for a competitive pricing battle. Second, non-political advertisers could feel cheated at their current rates. According to ProPublica, by law, television stations must give political candidates the lower rate on advertisements. When those rates are made widely available, it could hurt companies’ chances at negotiating with non-political advertisers.

    Travis Ridout, associate professor of political science at Washington State University and a director of the Wesleyan Media Project, a nonpartisan political advertising analysis organization, said he has heard that argument before but discredits it because political advertising information is publicly available already.

    “I’m a bit skeptical because they could walk into the TV station right now and have access to those public files … so I’m not sure it radically changes anything as far as pricing,” Ridout said in an interview with MintPress. “Stations will charge what they can get.”

    Ridout has examined political advertising documents throughout the years at television stations and said that while improved ease of access online would be beneficial, the information provided by the documents could be more thoroughly filled out. Ridout recalled discovering missing and incomplete forms in his research, and said those will have just as little value online as they do in paper form.

    “It certainly would be a positive in promoting transparency; I think people have a right to know who’s sponsoring those political ads they see on television and who’s paying for them,” Ridout continues. “Will it perfectly solve everything? I’m not sure because right now a lot of TV stations’ records are pretty bad, so if they take bad records and scan them and put them into a PDF file, that certainly doesn’t make it easy for people to analyze those data.

    “I’ve dug through some before and found some that are missing or just appear to be incomplete … or updated with someone’s chicken scratch,” Ridout added.

    News agencies have also expressed concern over not having time to process the ad information on a daily basis to the FCC. In a collective letter to the FCC in mid-January, media agencies such as CBS Corporation, ABC Television Stations and Univision Television Group, Inc. said the uploading process of political advertising documents online is simply too cumbersome for stations to participate in. The letter states that political sales representatives are already under stress from the campaign season and do not have the time to report back to the FCC.

    “To assert that station account executives will be untroubled by the necessity of scanning and uploading voluminous paper to the Commission’s web site on a same-day basis is to betray a lack of familiarity with their work during election seasons.”

    The stations continued by saying that the measure would serve no purpose to anyone, going as far as saying “none of this is necessary” when addressing transparency and the needs of candidates and the public.

    “It is already the practice of many television stations to voluntarily provide candidate representatives with “dates and dollars” information – that is, the amount of money an opposing candidate has spent on the station during a particular period – over the phone,” the letter read. “This competitive information is usually sufficient for a political time buyer to make immediate purchasing decisions.”


    Public interest

    Steven Waldman, Senior Advisor to the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and contributor to the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), wrote that a denial to post political advertising details online goes against the foundation of what news organizations ought to be striving for: fulfilling their obligation to provide easy access of information best fit for the public’s interest.

    “One gets the strong sense that broadcasters are happy to have a “public inspection file” as long as the public is not actually inspecting it,” Walkman wrote. “For instance, four TV licensees (in San Diego, Texas, New Mexico, and Illinois) objected to a proposal that the public be notified on air about the existence of the file.”

    Ridout said the issue can be divisive in newsrooms, as many reporters take transparency at all levels seriously, while those at the management level are more inclined to protect their business model.

    “I think it reflects a divergence between the news room and the corporate offices. … You know, reporters are covering political campaigns who think it’s a great idea, but their bosses are more interested in making sure that they can make the payroll each month. So there are different incentives there,” Ridout explained.

    The FCC has planned a public meeting over the issue on April 27. Ridout said the Wesleyan Media Project would support any compromise the FCC and media corporations can make if it improves ease of access and thoroughness of the political ad documents.

    “The one thing we are in favor of is more transparency, so to the extent that it satisfies that goal, we’re supportive,” Ridout said.

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