Local television stations are required to maintain a public file of political ad sales, and allow any member of the public to inspect it–as long as they physically come in to the station. To make the information more accessible, the Federal Communications Commission is proposing regulations that would require local broadcasters to put the public file online. Bob speaks to former FCC adviser Steven Waldman, who says that putting the information online is the least that broadcasters can do to fulfill their public interest obligations.
In Iowa this week, wall to bleachers coverage of caucusers caucusing and of an emergent insurgent, GOP runner-up Rick Santorum. It was as if the media were supercharged with ethanol!
I can only say three letters, O-M-G. Look
at this. Look what’s goin’ on. One vote, one vote right now separates…
As it stands right now, too close to call, and it, it’s just unbelievable when you look at the numbers…
It’s still too close to call, and we do not have any idea when we’re gonna be able to call this. It's great!
But we're not gonna cover the Iowa caucuses, because they totally didn't matter. What does matter this weekend always about the political process is where the money comes from to fund campaigns and how that money is spent.
State and federal election commissions collect fairly good data on the contribution side, but the spending side is mainly mysterious. That's largely because the recipients of the cash, chiefly local TV stations, have very limited obligations for making the information public. Till now they've merely had to keep a public file of political ad sales and submit that file for review to any member of the public who physically walks into a station to request it.
A proposed Federal Communications Commission regulation would require stations to routinely digitize the data so that the FCC could make it readily and rapidly available online. But the broadcasting industry is resisting.
Steven Waldman, now visiting senior media policy scholar at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, was the author of the FCC report which led to the proposed regulation. He says the FCC's media policy was written before the Internet and should be updated for the digital age.
You can take this material and put it online and, in doing that, make it much more useful because people from other towns can see it, you can take information from five different stations and aggregate it easily and see really what the patterns are in a community or across a region. It really takes this gold mine of really useful information and makes it much more effective as a transparency tool.
I just want to make this clear. Stations already collect the information and are required to keep track of who's paying what for what.
Yes, exactly. It's on pieces of paper in a file in a filing cabinet in their offices. The way the files are currently kept is they have to update them pretty frequently, really, within 48 hours. The rules apply not only to federal races but also state races, local races, the mayor. So instead of having the situation where after the election’s over, you find out all sorts of useful interesting information about how campaign money was spent. The TV stations are keeping this in real time.
The minimum requirement for maintaining a broadcast license is so much less onerous than it has been historically. There's not a whole lot that broadcasters have to do in exchange for that free access to the broadcast spectrum that they control.
In the olden days, there was this basic pact that broadcasters would get the spectrum for free from taxpayers and in exchange they would do certain service to the community, and originally there was fairly specific prescriptive rules about amounts of public affairs programming and things like that. Over time, for a variety of reasons, that faded away. And now their main responsibility is to keep track of certain types of information in what they call the public inspection file.
And so, partly what this FCC rule is doing is saying it would be nice now if we allowed the public to inspect the public inspection file, make it easier so that this transparency obligation could become more meaningful, ‘cause right now it's really not all that meaningful.
The NAB, the National Association of Broadcasters, has said that this change in the rules will create a greater data collection burden and an onerous one.
If that's true, they will become the first industry that I've heard of that managed to use the Internet to become less efficient –
- and more costly. So maybe if, if they're not thinking about the right way, yeah, you can always duplicate effort, but it's basic Transparency 101 for the information age.
The FCC, in fact, took, you know, a fairly light touch approach on this in focusing on transparency, frankly. The Citizens United case, which has led to this increase in spending, including a windfall for local TV stations, Justice Kennedy, when he wrote that, said the reason that we don't need caps and limits is we have such great disclosure. So –
This was the other shoe that has to drop, according to the majority opinion in the Citizens United case, to make Citizens United makes sense in a democracy, that the disclosure of where the money's coming from gives the public better context and understanding as to who's got a dog in each fight.
Exactly. Say what you will about the Citizens United decision and what possibly negative effects it's had on the political system, there's clearly won big winner in that, and it's local TV stations. Local TV stations are earning a lot of money from political ads as a result of the looser campaign rules. And so, it seems reasonable that hand-in-hand with that would go some sort of obligation to help the population police how this money is being spent.
Steve, thank you very much.
Thank you for having me.
Steven Waldman is visiting senior media policy scholar at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.