The plain-spoken, public-spirited former Federal Communications Commissioner, Michael Copps, is indignant—and for good reason: The FCC is not enforcing the law requiring the “dark money” super PACs and other campaign cash conduits to reveal, on-the-air, the names of the real donors behind all political advertisements, which are now flooding the profitable radio and television airwaves.
It is bad enough that political ads far overwhelm political news stories. One study of the 2014 election campaign found Philadelphia stations gave 45 times more air time to political ads than they devoted to their news stories which were designed to inform viewers about the candidates. Political ads have become a huge cash cow for the television and radio stations that use OUR public airwaves free of charge. We citizens, who are the owners of the public airwaves, receive no rent payment from these tenants. (Thanks to a corrupted Congress!)
As Mr. Copps has written: Viewers watching these ads are provided a nice-sounding name, such as “Paid for by Citizens for Amber Waves of Grain,” and “nothing else, no hint of who put up the money; no clue as to the real agenda behind the message.” They could be chemical companies polluting our water, big arms manufacturers wanting more over-priced government contracts, or banks who are opposed to proper regulation of their consumer-gouging tactics and their risky speculation.
Years ago the FCC declared that the Audiences “are entitled to know by whom they are being persuaded.” So why isn’t the FCC enforcing the clear-cut, unambiguous section 317 of the 1934 Communications Act? After all the mass media is regularly writing about dark money, secret money, bought-and paid-for politicians without being able to supply the names of the donors. The FCC could be the agency that gives the voters their right to know.
Earlier this year, the FCC voted to require that cable and radio stations maintain a public file on political advertising. In 2012 the agency required such a public file for broadcast television stations to maintain a database. But still, there are no requirements for disclosing the “true identity” of people, corporations or other entities paying for the ads.
This is what 170 house Democrats demanded that the FCC do in a letter released on January 20, 2016.
Such a demand, and even the knowledge that voters would overwhelmingly approve such openness, are not enough for the cautious FCC chairman, Tom Wheeler. His agency has been sitting on petitions to require disclosure under section 317 for years. In December 2015, the Sunlight Foundation, Common Cause and the Campaign Legal Center filed formal complaints against 18 television stations in four states, asking the Federal Communications Commission to order the stations to comply with this law. Former Commissioner Copps wonders what else the FCC needs before it enforces the law that its five Commissioners have sworn to uphold. Billions of dollars of dark money in this campaign year need to be brought into the sunlight.
Well, as Michael Copps writes, “Broadcasting and cable companies fear that honest ads might lead to fewer ads and less money in their coffers. Corporate and dark money interests hide in the shadows of anonymous attacks. Even our major newspapers shy away from covering this issue, perhaps looking more toward their bottom-line interests than the public interest. Some of them own other media properties…”
Apart from recent exertions on net neutrality, the FCC has been subservient to big media companies and their docile Congressional allies who don’t want to properly enforce the 1934 Communications Act, which stipulates that radio and television broadcasting companies adhere to the legal standard of the “public interest, convenience and necessity” in presenting programming. That standard implies a fair balance between serious content and entertainment/advertisements. The FCC, mercilessly harassed into slumber by members of Congress, has been AWOL from its legal duties.
On the bigger picture Copps writes, “Big money is corrupting our electoral process, strangling our civic dialogue, and endangering American self-government. The agency, the FCC, should respond to the petitions and complaints that have been filed and indicate if it is going to live up to its obligations.” Law and Order anyone?
Interested citizens may weigh in with their views by contacting FCC Chairman, Tom Wheeler (as many did effectively on net neutrality) by emailing him at Tom.Wheeler@fcc.gov.
The overall subject of media responsibility will be the subject of Day Two (May 24, 2016) of the Super Bowl for Civic Action at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.: Breaking Through Power.