It's not often the Federal Communications Commission has before it an item that is so easy to decide.
The agency tangles regularly with complex technical issues regarding broadcast spectrum and telecom policy. But today they get a pass.
On Friday the FCC's three acting commissioners face a simple question about broadcaster transparency: Should they vote to require television and radio stations to post data about their political ad sales in a publicly accessible online database?
They are already required by law to maintain this information for public view in paper files at their stations. But the process of sifting through and copying these files has been made burdensome and expensive by broadcasters that don't want the public to know how much they profit from the billions being spent on political ads by campaigns and super PACs.
By posting this information online, everyone will gain a better view of the powerful forces that are trying to influence elections via the media. This solution seems so obvious to everyone that many are surprised it's taken this long -- more than a decade of deliberations -- for the FCC to rule on it.
A no brainer, right?
One would think so. But the FCC has an uncanny knack for getting itself mired in politics. Few other federal agencies in Washington are held as captive by industry. Lobbyists for the National Association of Broadcasters -- representing the interests of media powerhouses like News Corp., Gannet Co., CBS Corporation and Sinclair Broadcast Group -- have applied intense pressure on the commissioners to drop the ruling altogether or craft a modified rule that allows them to hide rate information.
This has been made worse by the virtual coverage blackout by many of the media companies that stand to gain from non-disclosure. Micah Sifry of TechPresident.com reports a "stunning lack of coverage" of the issue by the Wall Street Journal, Fox News Channel , NBC News, USA Today and other prominent media outlets engaged in the business of broadcasting.
Historically, FCC leadership has preferred the weak tea of corporate compromise to simply doing right by the public. To his credit the present chairman, Julius Genachowski, has told broadcasters that enough is enough. They need to bench their lobbyists, pull themselves into the 21st century and disclose their complete public files online.
At least one of the two other commissioners must agree with Genachowski for a majority decision. Republican Robert McDowell has joined lock-step in opposition alongside the NAB, while Democrat Mignon Clyburn appears to be wavering, announcing recently to broadcasters that she was still open to discussion on the matter.
By requiring full disclosure, the FCC could go a long way toward shedding light on political influence peddling in 2012, and exposing the media's role -- both constructive and otherwise -- in our democracy.
Whether the agency fulfills its public-interest mandate or caves to broadcaster pressure will be known soon enough. The FCC vote is scheduled for later today.
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