But consider how difficult it was to pull together this information:
Each election cycle I drive thousands of miles and spend scores of hours in data collection. To cite the extreme, I have spent 14 hours behind the windshield to engage in a 15-minute data collection exercise at a station in Marquette in the Upper Peninsula. In 21st Century America, that is ridiculous. Broadcasters can easily web- publish the contents of their political files, and they should do so.
An online disclosure system would allow that group, or any other, to perform this kind of watchdog function far more easily.
It’s also worth nothing that broadcasters’ public-interest obligations have shrunk over the years to almost nothing. Their opposition to even this modest rule indicates that they only support disclosure—the “public-inspection file”—as long as the public isn’t actually using the material in any significant way.
Tellingly, a group of broadcasters in San Diego, Texas, New Mexico, and Illinois objected to a proposal that the public be notified on air about the existence of the public-inspection file. “Such announcements may arouse the public’s interest in examining a PIF, but the Licensees do not believe that the Commission should attempt to stimulate such examinations,” they wrote. Right. We wouldn’t want the public actually paying attention because that would, in their words, result in them playing “Sherlock Holmes” rather than engaging station managers in “productive dialogue.”
Now, it’s quite possible the rules can be improved; indeed, the FCC is practically begging for ideas from the field on how to implement the rules in the most effective, sensible way. And broadcasters are absolutely right when they say that for such a system to work the FCC itself will have to up its game in terms of technology. Journalists and other citizens interested in political transparency should weigh in on the right and wrong ways to proceed.
We have a rare situation in which local TV news operations can directly help the functioning of the political system by providing more information to the public. Is it really possible that the broadcasters will take the position that they should be paid large sums of campaign money, do a poor job of covering elections, and block efforts to allow for more sunlight in the political system?
January 17 is the newly extended deadline to respond to the rule and the first wave of comments that have already been submitted. Whether you agree with my take or not, I urge you to weigh in. To read the comments offered so far, go here and enter proceeding number 00-168. To post your own comment, click on the “submit a filing” link on the side or click here. To read the FCC’s proposal in full, go here.
This is one of two articles about new FCC rules on media transparency; here’s the other.