CRP Calls On FCC to Include Cable, Satellite and Radio in Political Ad Filing

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Yesterday, the Center for Responsive Politics called on the Federal Communications Commission to vote in favor of expanding its current online repository of political ad data filed by stations around the country.

This information is critically important for research into the role of political organizations in elections and in setting the policy agenda, as well as for oversight by agencies charged with making sure the groups sponsoring ads are operating lawfully.

More specifically, in the case of politically active nonprofit organizations, this data is the key to understanding how the groups operate in periods that fall outside the Federal Election Commission’s reporting windows.

Not long ago, information on political ad buys — files detailing who is buying the ads, how much they’re paying and when the ads are running, among other things — could only be accessed by going to each station in person and inspecting paper documents. In mid-2012, however, the FCC voted to require that the filings be sent electronically to the agency, which makes them available online.

But the requirement applies only to network affiliates; cable and satellite TV stations as well as radio outlets have been exempt, even though their viewers and listeners are important targets for political messages.

CRP believes a decision to expand the filing requirement to cover these outlets is past due. To that end, we stand with other organizations in the transparency community that have called on the FCC to vote in favor of the expansion.

In lending our support for this action, we are also echoing calls for the agency to address certain shortcomings of the current system. First, filers should be required to submit their reports to the Consolidated Database System (CDBS), maintained by the FCC. In 2016, requiring a station to submit its files into a particular online database like this would be no undue burden for them and would allow the public enhanced access to the information.

Second, the public inspection files should be searchable and machine-readable. While the current system is far better than the paper system that existed previously, CRP has spent months developing a system to code, process and standardize the data that’s available so that it can be linked up to relevant FEC and IRS data. While we’ve made great strides in scraping the PDFs and setting up standardization procedures, the FCC could make these procedures much easier and thus make the data more accessible to the public.

We also agree that the FCC should not require that complaints be filed only by residents of areas where the ads in question have run.

The proliferation of advertisements run by outside groups that legally are able to obscure sponsors’ identities makes it increasingly important that each ad’s sponsors be publicly disclosed. As such, we support the full and consistent enforcement of  the public file and sponsorship identification requirements of Section 317 of the Communications Act.

You can read the Center for Responsive Politics’ full comments here.