The battle playing out over a new government transparency proposal has taken a turn that should concern journalists. Many of the nation’s major news organizations are now aggressively opposing a proposal to disclose more information about political advertising—acting directly against the interests of their own reporters and calling into question the companies’ commitment to journalistic values.
For those who haven’t followed the drama, the FCC has proposed that the “public inspection files” that local TV stations have long been required to keep—in a paper file, in cabinets, in their offices—be put online. These files contain invaluable information about who is buying political advertisements, for federal, state and local races. (See CJR’s recent exploration of some of these files in five states, and read about the New America Foundation’s ongoing efforts to crowdsource these files). The notion of moving the “public inspection files” from ink to pixels is not exactly radical stuff but it would make it easier for journalists to track the flow of campaign spending.
(Full disclosure: I was the lead author of a report that prompted this proposal to move the paper file to the Internet.)
Amazingly, the same news organizations that routinely demand transparency from government—and rely on the prompt disclosure of public information for their stories—are opposing the rule.
For instance, Politico regularly runs articles about campaign spending. Yet one of the strongest opponents of this transparency rule is Politico’s owner, Allbritton Communications Company (which also owns in WJLA, the ABC affiliate in Washington, and several other local TV stations.) Jerald Fritz, vice president of Allbritton, argues that putting these forms online is a slippery slope toward a “Soviet-style standardization” of how ads are sold. As with most analogies involving Soviet totalitarianism and minor regulatory changes, this is a less-than-airtight argument. Having standardized reporting does not mean energetic TV sales reps will be sent to the gulag. By analogy, consider: Americans report income to the IRS in a standardized format yet it hasn’t led to a “standardization” of how we earn our income. More to the point, such eventual standardization would clearly benefit reporters for Politico and the local TV news operations that Allbritton owns. Not to mention the readers and viewers they serve.
Or consider the strange posture of the TV networks—NBC, ABC, CBS, Univision and Fox. They all pride themselves on the quality of their journalism—as do the local news stations and cable channels they own (CNN, MSNBC, Fox). And yet in a formal comment to the FCC opposing the rule, the local stations owned by the networks advocated for the current system in which reporters have to hoof around the state, going to the local TV station offices to read the paper files, instead of being able to read many more of them online. For reporters, they wrote, “a certain amount of leg work is eminently practical,” they explained. “Research by its nature requires the expenditure of effort.”
Or there’s the opposition from the National Association of Broadcasters, which represents most of the companies that own the local TV news operations—e.g. Hearst, Gannett, Belo, Washington Post Company etc.—many of which also own newspapers. The NAB filing to the FCC included the laughable estimate that putting the paper files online would require a local station to hire eight new people. (A job creation program!)
The argument doesn’t pass the straight face test. Scanners can process 60 pages a minute. So even if a station has several thousand pages to scan, it would require one person a few hours, not eight people full time for several months.
But let’s for a moment put aside that Washington-make-believe cost estimate—and let’s also ignore the extra cost that the news organizations are forcing upon themselves by insisting that their reporters use the drive-around-the-state-visiting-stations method.
Doesn’t the news organizations’ position undercut the arguments of journalists who routinely demand disclosure from public officials or private companies? I sure know what I’d be tempted to say if I were a government official confronted with a request for information from a reporter from a local TV news operation—or, for that matter, Politico, NBC, Fox, or a newspaper owned by one of these media companies:
“Why should we put our documents online if you won’t put yours on?” I’d ask.
And if the reporter dutifully responds, “that proposal would have imposed a costly burden!” I’d laugh and say, “Yeah, right. Same here.”
This isn’t just another same-old-same-old case of an industry opposing a disclosure regulation. An important statement from the deans of twelve leading journalism schools put it well: “Broadcast news organizations depend on, and consistently call for, robust open-record regimes for the institutions they cover; it seems hypocritical for broadcasters to oppose applying the same principle to themselves.”
Indeed, news organizations should be leading the efforts to make the political system more transparent—not fighting furiously to thwart such efforts.