Broadcasters May Help Reveal Super PAC Men

Watchdog groups’ efforts could curb political ad spending

Transparency continues to be a loaded word in
Washington, and now broadcasters may be caught in
the middle of another fight to pull back the curtain
on those most mysterious of campaign contributors: the Super
PACs. Activist groups have begun pushing the FCC to use its
ad disclosure authority to identify the money behind all those
high-stakes donors with the highfalutin names, along with
other independent expenditure ads. The request could potentially
reduce broadcasters’
political ad take.

The move is actually a
two-front effort. One, spotlighted
by Beltway-based
watchdog group the Sunlight
Foundation in an investigation
of TV station political
ad files, would require
the FCC to better monitor
those filings to ensure
broadcasters are identifying
the groups buying political
ads in station documents,
rather than simply the media buying firm.

That issue is more than academic for broadcasters, since the
conventional wisdom is that if the actual donors behind
groups like Americans for More American Values have to
associate themselves directly with the ads, particularly attack
ads, they will be less inclined to fund them.

The other effort, spearheaded by Common Cause and
backed by some congressional Democrats, asks the FCC to
use its disclosure muscle to go beyond the PACs and nonprofits to identify on-air the individuals or companies who
are funneling money through those front groups.

That may sound familiar: Congressional Democrats tried
unsuccessfully to require on-screen disclosures of the funders
of Super PACs via the 2010 DISCLOSE Act (Democracy Is
Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections).

At an FCC oversight hearing this month, Sen. Bill Nelson
(D-Fla.) left no doubt that he was looking for the commission
to do what the Congress couldn’t in failing to pass the
bill. “You have the statutory power,” plus the blessing of the
Supreme Court, Nelson said. He also pointed out that in the
Citizens United Supreme Court decision that lifted the ban on
corporate and union funding of campaign ads, eight of nine
justices said disclosure was the less restrictive alternative to
what they saw as a ban on speech. “That would indicate that
the court was looking approvingly on disclosure,” Nelson said.

There appears to be a Democratic majority on the commission
for taking some action. FCC chairman Julius Genachowski
called disclosure a First Amendment-friendly powerful
tool, saying the FCC should look into “going more
deeply into who the actual funders are.”

FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn said she is willing
to work with Congress if the FCC is not doing something it
should be. And commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel went furthest
of all, saying sunlight is “the best disinfectant, and we
should look at our rules and make sure they are updated.”

Adding fuel to the fire was a Government Accountability
Office report released last month commissioned by Disclose
Act champions. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi,
House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member
Henry Waxman—the two requested the report—and Communications
Subcommittee ranking member Anna Eshoo,
all California Democrats, said the GAO paper clarifies that
the FCC is obligated under existing law to require broadcast
stations and cable TV operators to identify the sponsors of
those ads on-air, and called for the FCC to exercise its power.

Common Cause hailed the legislators a day after the advocacy
group made political ad disclosure one of the priorities
of its media reform initiative, headed by former FCC commissioner
and acting chairman Michael Copps.

“[A] chemical company dumping sludge into the Chesapeake
Bay should not be allowed to masquerade as ‘Citizens
for a Clean, Green Future,’” Copps blogged last week. “If the
FCC would exercise the authority it has…we could at least
see Big Money unmasked.”

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