FCC Admonishes Stations for Political Ad Recordkeeping Violations

Issues no fines and dismisses some complaints because it said its rules were vague
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The FCC has resolved a dozen campaign ad disclosure complaints against various broadcast stations, but with only some admonishments--official reprimands--rather than fines against what the FCC said were, in some cases, willful violations of its political file disclosure rules.

It took no action where a licensee did not satisfy a transparency requirement that the FCC suggested had not been clear and which it clarified in a separate order released in tandem with its resolution of the complaints, saying it was clarifying "certain recordkeeping obligations that the Act and the Commission’s rules impose on broadcast licensees and other entities with respect to the purchase of political advertising time."

So, the FCC chose only to give some violators a reprimand, and others no reprimand because it concluded the rules had not been clear. The FCC in January 2017 clarified its political ad disclosures in resolving a number of such complaints, but that was after the alleged violations by WCPO and others.

Related: FCC Clarifies Political Ad Disclosures

Among those admonished in the order released Thursday (Oct. 17) was Scripps' WCPO-TV Cincinnati, which the FCC treated in a separate order.

The Campaign Legal Center, joined by the Benton Foundation and the Sunlight Foundation filed a complaint against the station in 2016.

The groups claimed that issue ad entries (political ads not advocating for or against a candidate) in WCPO's online political file "clearly failed" to meet the FCC's disclosure rules.

The FCC concluded that only one of those ads was a clear violation, while the vagueness of the FCC rules got the other 15 ads off the hook, the same reason it did not take some enforcement actions related to the complaints about the 11 other stations.

"We admonish Scripps for maintaining a deficient political file with respect to one request to purchase political advertising time for a non-candidate issue advertisement sponsored by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee," the FCC said. "We do not take enforcement action against Scripps for alleged political file violations with regard to the remaining 15 advertisements identified in the Complaint because either there were no political file deficiencies with respect to the advertisement or the conduct at issue involved licensee obligations that we find were not sufficiently clear prior to the clarifications we provide in the Political File Clarification Order."

“Scripps takes its obligations as an FCC licensee seriously," said a spokesperson for the company. "We acknowledge that we inappropriately used the acronym DSCC instead of spelling out Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee on a political order in 2016. Scripps has put in safeguards to ensure it does not recur.”

It was not clear at press time which of the 11 other stations got admonished because the links to that collective order on the FCC web site were not available at press time. 

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