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Over Easy: Hiding Political Advertisers

Cat hiding

Bet ya can’t see me!

In 2002, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (AKA McCain-Feingold) was passed with the support of both parties, and President George W. Bush signed it into law. This law requires individuals and organizations that purchase political commercial TV ads to provide identifying information for the TV stations’ public files. But frequently this identifying information is not provided, making it more difficult for voters to make informed voting decisions. TV stations are ignoring disclosure requirements, and allowing advertisers to play hide and seek with the information.

The Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act states clearly that political advertisers must identify:

  • Their chief executive officer or board of directors (which helps identify the true agenda behind a vaguely-named group)
  • Any issue of national importance to which the ad refers
  • Any candidate to which an ad refers

Television stations, which receive hundreds of thousands of dollars from airing these ads, all too frequently don’t force advertisers to provide even this basic information.

Last  year the Sunlight Foundation created two important tools to help identify the growing amounts of political spending and influence that has evaded the Federal Election Commission’s rules. As described by Sunlight Foundation:

  • Ad Hawk is a mobile Sunlight app that allows users to identify groups behind political ads and to learn the names of their top donors. To create this tool, our developers scrape the online sites of candidates and politically active organizations to create a database of ads.
  • Political Ad Sleuth creates an easy-to-search feed of all of the political ad buys that the Federal Communications Commission currently requires broadcasters to post online. At the moment, only stations affiliated with the top four networks (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) that are located in the nation’s 50 largest TV markets have to post political ad buys online. That unfortunately leaves a lot of territory uncovered — especially in a year when so many races that could determine control of Congress are occurring in states without top-50 markets, like Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Montana and West Virginia, to name a few.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, outside political groups organized themselves as “social welfare” non-profits so they would not be forced to disclose their leadership to the Federal Election Commission. Required disclosures at TV stations — required by McCain-Feingold — have become the only means of finding out who is behind “non-profit” groups with generic names, like those that pumped more than $300 million into the 2012 campaign. But the Federal Communications Commission, which is in charge of enforcing the law, so far has not taken action against stations that appear to have flouted it.

In some of the records examined by Sunlight, advertisers explicitly refused to provide the required information but were still allowed to place their ads. In others, they complied with misleading language in the most widely used form for reporting information on political advertisers. Called the NAB form because it’s published by the National Association of Broadcasters, it invites filers to list the name of an ‘authorized agent’ instead of the groups’ principals. That undercuts explicit requirements in the McCain-Feingold law. The distinction is significant: An ‘authorized agent’ can be (and often is, in the filings Sunlight reviewed) a professional media buyer who works for dozens of committees and whose name reveals nothing about a group’s ideology or funding sources. The identities of a group’s officers or trustees generally are much more informative.

This is important now! In some states, primaries for the 2014 Midterm elections are underway, and in others campaigning for the general election in November already has begun. There are also state and local elections coming up, and you can be sure there will be lots of ads.

In early May, the Sunlight Foundation and the Campaign Legal Center, represented by Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute for Public Representation filed separate complaints with the FCC against these 11 TV stations for allowing political advertisers to disobey federal disclosure requirements: 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) Durham. Each complaint includes a link to the ad and the relevant portion of the stations’ online political files. You can read the press release and the complaint against each here.

Photo by wonderferret under Creative Commons license

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I retired from the University of Notre Dame in the Office of Information Technology in 2010. I'm divorced, with two grown children and 8 grandchildren. I'm a lifelong liberal and a "nonbeliever."