The Sunlight Foundation and Campaign Legal Center filed complaints May 1 against 11 TV stations for allegedly failing to post the requisite info about political ad sponsors in their online political files.
The complaints say the stations failed to identify the candidate the ad referred to, the issue of national importance and the CEO or board of directors of the sponsor.
The groups have been tracking the online broadcaster filings in the wake of the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United and subsequent court decisions that allowed more money from outside groups into the political system without ways to specifically track the underlying funders.
"Often the only way to track this money, which is so obviously influencing our elections, is through the broadcasters’ political files, which until last year, were kept only on paper, locked away in file cabinets," said the Sunlight Foundation.
Currently, only the Big Four network affiliates in the top 50 markets must post their political files to the database, something broadcasters say gives competitors easy access to information they themselves do not have to make public.
The complaints come only a couple months before the July 1 deadline for all TV stations to start posting their political files to that searchable FCC database.
The groups said they would continue to monitor the files. With the congressional midterm election coming up, broadcasters will likely have a boatload of political ad buys to post to the FCC site.
The stations targeted were a geographically diverse mix of major market affiliates owned by major groups including O&O's of the four major networks. “We were provided with copies of the complaint today and are reviewing it," said a Fox spokesperson.
Stations have always been required to make the files accessible to the public at the stations, but the FCC decided back in 2012 to require online posting to make it easier to inspect that public file. (http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-12-44A1.pdf).
According to the Communications Act, the political file requirements are as follows:
"A licensee shall 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 for public office; or communicates a message relating to any political matter of national importance, including a legally qualified candidate; any election to Federal office; or a national legislative issue of public importance."
That public record must include "whether the request to purchase broadcast time is accepted or rejected by the licensee; the rate charged for the broadcast time;the date and time on which the communication is aired; the class of time that is purchased; the name of the candidate to which the communication refers and the office to which the candidate is seeking election, the election to which the communication refers, or the issue to which the communication refers (as applicable); in the case of a request made by, or on behalf of, a candidate, the name of the candidate, the authorized committee of the candidate, and the treasurer of such committee; and in the case of any other request, the name of the person purchasing the time, the name, address, and phone number of a contact person for such person, and a list of the chief executive officers or members of the executive committee or of the board of directors of such person."
"Media General will review the complaint and respond as appropriate," said a company spokesperson. "We were provided with copies of the complaint today and are reviewing," said a Fox spokesperson.
"NAB takes seriously the political file rules, and will continue working with broadcasters to ensure compliance," said National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton. "We also intend to educate political advertising agencies to enlist support for more accurate information on the disclosure requirements for political ads. Our goal is 100 percent compliance with both the statutory requirements and the FCC rules."
Gannet and CBS referred to the NAB response.
Individual complaints were filed against WDIV (NBC) Detroit; KNXV (ABC) Phoenix; WTVJ (NBC) Miami; WMUR (ABC) Manchester/Boston; WFLA (NBC) Tampa; WTVT (FOX) Tampa; WWJ (CBS) Detroit; KMGH (ABC) Denver; WCNC (NBC) Charlotte; KMSP (FOX) Minneapolis; and WTVD (ABC).