WASHINGTON -- Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, staked out strong ground Monday in support of a plan to make information about political television ad buys available online. He was speaking in Las Vegas before the National Association of Broadcasters, whose members have lobbied hard against the plan.
The FCC proposal would dramatically increase the amount of disclosure around political TV advertising just as the country enters into a general election that many predict will feature greater ad saturation than ever before.
Thanks ultimately to the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which freed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts in elections, independent groups are expected to pour as much as $1 billion into the 2012 campaign, much of that likely to go to TV ads. Total spending on broadcast political ads is anticipated to reach up to $3 billion.
On Monday, Genachowski fired back at broadcasters for the first time over their opposition to the plan, saying that "some in the broadcast industry have elected to position themselves against technology, against transparency and against journalism."
Claims that disclosure would be a financial burden for broadcasters -- even a "jobs destroyer" -- were unsupported by facts, Genachowski said. He called the cost of online disclosure "nominal." Indeed, he said, "Once the transition from paper to digital is complete, it will save money -- save money for broadcasters and for other stakeholders, including political candidates, journalists and the public at large."
Under the FCC proposal, data from the federally mandated public file on reserved time for political ads, maintained by all broadcast stations, would be put into an online database. These files are currently only available for inspection by those who physically visit the station.
Genachowski swatted down the argument that this was not an FCC issue, pointing to the language of the Communications Act. "Congress explicitly requires broadcasters to 'maintain, and make available for public inspection, a complete record of a request to purchase broadcast time that is made by or on behalf of a legally qualified candidate, etc.,'" he said.
Broadcasters' argument that the information about the ad buys is proprietary was similarly dismissed by the chairman. "Congress explicitly requires broadcasters to disclose this information, and, two, broadcasters already do," he said.
Genachowski then summed up his view of the broadcasters' argument: "The argument against moving the public file online is that required broadcaster disclosures shouldn’t be too public. But in a world where everything is going digital, why have a special exemption for broadcasters' political disclosure obligation?"
Lisa Rosenberg, government affairs consultant for the Sunlight Foundation, a pro-transparency group that has submitted comments to the FCC in favor of the proposal, put it simply to HuffPost. "[The political file] can't really be considered public if it's not online," she said.
Responding to Genachowski's speech, Gordon Smith, chairman of the National Association of Broadcasters, told Adweek, "[The FCC] has the authority to do what they're going to do. We're working with them in good faith. We've made it clear [to the FCC] that we're happy to put online who bought commercial time and how much. What we're concerned about is putting the rate on the Internet because that has collateral commercial damage."
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