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It’s Not Just Politicians: Media Companies Lobby Against Transparency in Elections

| April 23, 2012

media politicians oz campaign finance television

Just don’t look behind the curtain. (Shawn Hoke)

News organizations cultivate a reputation for demanding transparency, whether by suing for access to government documents, dispatching camera crews to the doorsteps of recalcitrant politicians, or editorializing in favor of open government.

But now many of the country’s biggest media companies, which own dozens of newspapers and TV news operations, are flexing their muscle in Washington in a fight against a government initiative to increase transparency of political spending.

The corporate owners or sister companies of some of the biggest names in journalism — NBC News, ABC News, Fox News, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Politico, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and dozens of local TV news outlets — are lobbying against a Federal Communications Commission measure that would require broadcasters to post political ad data on the Internet.

As we have recently detailed, political ad data is public by law but not easy to get because it is kept only in paper files at each station. The FCC has proposed fixing that by requiring broadcasters to post online the details of political ad purchases, including the identity of the buyer and the price.

(ProPublica has been inviting readers and other journalists to send in the files to be posted as part of our Free the Files project.)

Over the past few months, several major media companies have dispatched top executives or outside lobbyists to the FCC to oppose the proposed rule or to push a watered-down version, disclosure filings show. (The FCC will vote on the issue April 27.)

Among them are:

  • News Corp., which owns The Wall Street Journal and Fox News;
  • Walt Disney, which owns ABC News and ESPN;
  • NBCUniversal, which is owned by Comcast and includes NBC News;
  • Allbritton, which owns several TV stations and Politico;
  • Gannett Broadcasting, a division of Gannett, which owns USA Today:
  • Post-Newsweek Stations, the broadcast division of The Washington Post Co.;
  • Belo Cos., which owns 20 TV stations;
  • Cox Media Group, which owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Austin American-Statesman and other newspapers and TV stations;
  • Dispatch Broadcast Group, which owns Ohio and Indiana TV stations;
  • Barrington Broadcasting Group, which owns several TV stations around the country;
  • The E.W. Scripps Co., which owns TV stations and newspapers, including The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn.;
  • Hearst Television Inc., which owns 29 stations;
  • Raycom Media, which owns TV stations;
  • Schurz Communications, which owns newspapers and TV stations nationwide.

(ProPublica has published stories in partnership with many of these news organizations, and has an agreement with NBC’s owned and operated TV stations for pre-publication access to our news apps and a contribution by NBC to ProPublica.)

In a speech this week at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski excoriated the broadcasters as working “against transparency and against journalism.”

The industry’s opposition to the transparency proposal has sometimes been heated. In filings submitted to the FCC in January and March, Allbritton Senior Vice President Jerald Fritz raised the specter of “’Soviet-style standardization” of ad sales if political ad files are required to be put online in a single format.

In a February meeting with the FCC, Walt Disney executives complained about the “logistics and burden” of putting the political ad information online.

That month, executives from Disney, NBC and News Corp. argued in a meeting with FCC officials that posting the political ad data would allow “competitors in the market and commercial advertisers [to] anonymously glean highly sensitive pricing data.”

Television stations must by law offer political candidates the lowest rates on ads. Broadcasters have argued that making this information available online — and not just at stations — would hurt their ability to negotiate with other advertisers.

Advocates for the online disclosure rule have countered that the political ad information is already public by law and the measure would simply make the existing disclosure rules relevant for the Internet age. Advocates have also pointed out that keeping paper files in electronic form should actually be more efficient for stations.

Allbritton, NBC and Walt Disney did not respond to requests for comment on the FCC chairman’s charge that they have positioned themselves “against transparency and against journalism.” News Corp. declined to comment.

Some media companies have also pushed a watered-down proposal to post only some of the public political ad data, and to put it up on individual station websites instead of a central FCC website.

Washington lawyers representing the other companies fighting the rule — Barrington Broadcasting, Belo, Cox, Dispatch, E.W. Scripps, Gannett, Hearst, Meredith Broadcasting, Post-Newsweek Stations, Raycom Media and Schurz Communications — lobbied FCC officials in February, March and again this week.

The group suggested that instead of putting the full, itemized political ad data online, stations would post aggregate data once a week.

“What we were saying is, if you want the public to be informed about what’s being bought at what price, maybe there’s a simpler way to do it,” Mary Jo Manning, an attorney representing the group, told ProPublica. “Transparency is giving people information that is useful.”

But when the FCC pressed the group for details on its plan, the stations said they opposed posting even the aggregate data in a single format prescribed by the FCC. They also opposed posting the data on a central FCC website, saying they wanted to post the limited data only on the stations’ own websites. If enacted, both of those stances would make it more difficult to get and analyze the data.

Since there is a one-week sunshine period ahead of FCC votes, today is the last day that interested parties will be able to lobby the commission before its public meeting April 27.

–Justin Elliott, ProPublica

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6 Responses for “It’s Not Just Politicians: Media Companies Lobby Against Transparency in Elections”

  1. Outsider says:

    And yet another example of the dictator, via the FCC bypassing the legislative process to force his will on America. And why is someone who is so concerned with transparency in elections so against having voters produce valid identification before casting a ballot?

  2. Dorothea says:

    @Outsider, yet another example of your opinion blinded by hatred and lacking fact. The FCC is composed of five members and appointments must be three from one political party and two from the other. Right now there are only three members because President Obama’s appointments are stalled by the Republicans in the Senate. There are two Democrats and one Republican serving at this time. The two Democrats are likely to vote yes and were appointed by Obama. The Republican is likely to vote no, a Bush appointment, reappointed by Obama. However, Obama made this reappointed in order to keep the required political balance.

  3. Sherry Epley says:

    Excellent comment Dorothea.

    Not to confuse anyone with facts. . . Here is the identification required to register to vote in the state of Florida:

    Identification (ID) Requirements: If you are a new applicant, state and federal law require you to provide a current and valid Florida driver’s license number (FL DL#) or Florida identification card number (FL ID#). If you have not been issued a FL DL# or FL ID#, you must then provide the last four digits of your Social Security Number (SSN). If you have not been issued any of these ID numbers, check “None” on the application. If you do not provide any number or do not check “None,” your registration may be denied. See s.303, HAVA and section 97.053(6), Fla. Stat.
    Special ID requirements: If you are registering by mail, have never voted in Florida, and have never been issued one of the ID numbers above, you must include with your application, or at a later time before you vote, one of the following:
     A copy of an ID that shows your name and photo (acceptable IDs) U.S. Passport, debit or credit card, military ID, Student ID, retirement center ID, neighborhood association ID, or public assistance ID; or
     A copy of an ID that shows your name and current residence address (acceptable documents) utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck, or other government document.

    Which has “nothing” to do with this article. . . except that some people will take any twisted opportunity to bash our President.

  4. B. Claire says:

    “It’s Not Just Politicians: Media Companies Lobby Against Transparency in Elections”

    Been watching media ‘fix the rules’ in their favor for years. One early example started when President George W. Bush designated Michael Powell [Ret. Gen. Colin Powell son] chairman of the FCC on January 22, 2001.

    Media’s big fish watch FCC review ownership cap
    By David Lieberman, USA TODAY 07/08/2001

    NEW YORK — If you think too few people already control too much media, brace yourself for what’s going to happen in the industry over the next several months.

    Key media ownership limits are expected to be relaxed, or eliminated, as they come under attack in the courts and at the Federal Communications Commission.

    The agency’s new, deregulation-minded chairman, Michael Powell [Ret. Gen. Colin Powell son], “wants the Commission to review the rules in the modern context and conduct a rigorous analysis,” says his legal adviser, Susan Eid.

    “His question is: ‘Do these rules continue to serve their intended purpose?’ ”

    Most observers believe that Powell, and the Republican-controlled FCC, will find that they don’t and will change some rules in ways that will set off a stampede of mergers.

    Owners of TV and radio stations, cable systems and newspapers have been clamoring for the changes to let them bulk up and better compete with massive rivals such as AOL Time Warner and Viacom. “This is survival time for these guys,” says Sanford Bernstein analyst Tom Wolzien. “It’s merge or die.”

    Once it starts, though, no one knows where the next round of mergers might stop. Some of the expected rule changes would make it theoretically possible for one CEO to run AOL Time Warner, NBC, Clear Channel radio and The New York Times.

    That terrifies many media watchdogs. Merger mania, they say, could mean less spending for newsgathering, fewer opportunities for people to hear diverse views on public issues and rising prices for advertisers.

    Powell “is promoting the most radical view of media consolidation that any democracy has ever supported,” former FCC chairman Reed Hundt says. “It’s an experiment with the underpinnings of democracy. There isn’t any consumer demand for this consolidation. Not a single person in America would say it’s a good idea. It’s exclusively driven by ideology and business interests.” Powell was unavailable for comment.

    [enter Rupert Murdoch]

    On Sept. 7, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington will hear oral arguments in a challenge to several federal ownership restrictions raised by News Corp.,[Rupert Murdoch, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer] General Electric’s NBC, Viacom and AOL Time Warner.


    Bookend this with Supreme Court March 2010 Citizens United…corporations are people…

    and we [the ‘real’ people] are pretty much …toast.

  5. Think first, act second says:

    B. Claire,
    In the spirit of full disclosure, Michael Powell was appointed to the FCC on November 3, 1997 by President BILL CLINTON. Bush appointed him chairman but 4 years after Clinton’s appointment.

  6. B. Claire says:

    Think first, act second,
    Thanks for the added Pres. Clinton info…interesting !

    As you also seem to have interest in the history/impact of media…probably also not shocked to see this evolution [resulting in derailing Rupert’s company’s bid to buy all of UK satcaster BSkyB last year] :

    Rupert Murdoch’s phone hacking scandal hits America: Tycoon reveals he has handed over 60,000 internal emails to Department of Justice investigators

    Read more:

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