The FCC has proposed an important rule change that could make the political system more transparent. Amazingly, the trade associations representing the local TV news industry are opposing it.
In exchange for being given the broadcast spectrum by taxpayers for free, broadcasters have long been required to fulfill certain “public-interest obligations” to communities. These used to be fairly significant; now they mostly entail compiling and maintaining a “public-inspection file” that citizens can examine. (For more on the history of the public interest obligations, see pages 276-296 in The Information Needs of Communities”.)
One of the most interesting components of the file: broadcasters are required to keep a log of the political advertising that airs on their channel. This is a potential gold mine of information about who is spending what. The requirement applies to all races—national, state, and local—and issue ads, and must be posted rapidly (usually within forty-eight hours). Stations also must maintain a list of the executives or members of the board of directors of the groups buying the ads.
To be clear, this is what broadcasters are already required to assemble. They mostly do it on paper and store it in filing cabinets at their offices.
The FCC’s proposal is breathtakingly obvious: move the material online. The commission decided not to ask for any additional information for the political file. It merely said that what stations currently collect on paper, they should instead put on the Internet. (Full disclosure: the commission’s proposal is based on a report of which I was the lead author.)
Yet it has provoked a strong, negative reaction from local TV stations. The National Association of Broadcasters and a group of state associations of broadcasters argue that it would dramatically increase the burden on local stations, since some of the files are updated frequently during campaign season. One broadcaster predicted they would have to add eight new staffers to manage such a new system. While they agreed that some other parts of the “public inspection file” could go online, the say the political file should be exempted from that policy.
On the burden point, I would merely note that most of the rest of the world has figured out ways to use the Internet to reduce workload and cost. I’m not sure the broadcasters want to take the position that they will be the one industry that can’t possibly be expected to use the Internet to improve efficiency.
But lest we get lost in the implementation weeds, let’s put this “political file” proposal in a larger context.
This approach ought to have broad ideological support. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission decision was, of course, very controversial because it allowed more types of unlimited campaign spending.
But here’s what people often forget: the conservative justices who wrote that decision said that such a laissez faire system worked if there’s proper and robust disclosure. Indeed, it is a premise of their approach. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote (pdf):
With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters. Shareholders can determine whether their corporation’s political speech advances the corporation’s interest in making profits, and citizens can see whether elected officials are ‘in the pocket’ of so-called moneyed interests The First Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.
This opinion echoed the Court’s decision when it upheld disclosure requirements in Doe v. Reed. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote: “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed. For my part, I do not look forward to a society which, thanks to the Supreme Court, campaigns anonymously and even exercises the direct democracy of initiative and referendum hidden from public scrutiny and protected from the accountability of criticism. This does not resemble the Home of the Brave.”