In the spirit of Spring (rebirth and renewal all around!) I’ll optimistically throw out another idea. The broadcasters aggressively opposed putting this information online, but late in the game, a group of TV station owners tried coming up with a plan to have the most important data provided in a searchable database. The stations could help their own reporters do their jobs better, prove to the community (and policymakers) that they zealously try to better inform the public by moving to the forefront of improving rather than resisting transparency. For instance, broadcasters in the smaller markets could voluntarily put their files online right away—or they could voluntarily create the database they were suggesting. Or stations could voluntarily stop charging as much as a dollar per page (we’re looking at you, KSNV-TV in Las Vegas) when citizens come in to copy the political files.

Peek Behind the Veil. The current FCC rule did not attempt to provide new rules to “pierce the veil” on Super PACs—i.e. require stations to find out who the biggest donors to the different Super PACs are. But the files do provide investigative reporters with a few new clues. By law, the TV stations are required to get the names of the officers and directors of any groups buying ads. These are supposed to be placed in the “public file,” a companion to the political file, which also must be put online. Public interest groups say that some of the files did not have that information collected.Thus, another task for reporters and citizens: go through the PDFs and track which stations have collected this crucial information and which, in violation of federal law, have not. Then, some group should create a Web page listing the officers and contact information of each group.

Visit Cable Town. The broadcasters argued that it’s unfair to apply the disclosure rules only to them and not cable TV. It did make great sense for the FCC to start with broadcasters—they get most of the money and operate on a free grant of spectrum from the public. But I do agree that cable TV records should be put online too.
Better yet, cable operators could voluntarily provide the information. Perhaps Michael Powell—the former FCC chair and the current head of the cable association—could organize a national effort to proactively advance the cause of transparency. Or perhaps Comcast—the largest cable operator and the owner of NBC news—could decide that, as a matter of corporate policy, it will put online all of its political advertising files, via cable or local broadcast stations.

I don’t have a dog in the cable vs. broadcaster fights, but I sure wouldn’t mind seeing them compete to prove who is better serving the interests of their viewers by championing transparency and the public interest (not to mention their news divisions).

Pay for Play. For me, the biggest disappointment in the FCC’s order was the decision not to implement the recommendation from the Information Needs of Communities report on “pay for play.” (Full disclosure: Until October 2011 I was Senior Advisor to the Chairman of the FCC, and I was lead author of the Information Needs of Communities report, which recommended that the political files be put online.)

The report noted a disturbing trend of local TV stations airing advertiser-crafted content—in the form of video press releases, segments, or whole shows—without adequately disclosing to the viewers that it’s really advertorial. The stations already must disclose this at the end of the broadcast; the Information Needs report recommended that this information be put online as well.

The FCC declined to take that step right now. Journalists and citizens should keep the pressure on. Here’s another opportunity for journalists or the industry itself to take the lead. Why doesn’t the National Association of Broadcasters call on its members to voluntarily put this information online? Why doesn’t the Radio and TV Digital News Directors—which, inexplicably, opposed the FCC’s political transparency rule—take the lead in requesting, or demanding, that their own stations take this important step? Local TV newsrooms forever complain when they’re not taken as seriously as newspaper reporters. In many cases the irritation is justified but in the first round of this fight, it was notable that the TV news directors sided with TV station owners, not with other journalists, and not for the interests of their viewers. Here’s a chance for them to show that they genuinely care about viewers being better informed.

The FCC rule is a hugely important step. But its ultimate significance will depend greatly on how reporters, citizens, and the industry follow up.

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Steven Waldman was senior advisor to the Chairman of the FCC and principal author of its report on the changing media landscape. He was chair of the Council on Foundations Working Group on Nonprofit Media and is a consultant to the Pew Research Center. Before that, he was the founder of Beliefnet.com and a national correspondent for Newsweek.