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Broadcasters Betray Trust With Citizens United

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has proposed that the biggest stations in the larger markets — i.e., the ones that air the most ads and reap the financial benefits — put this same information online and make it accessible through their own and the FCC’s website.

And, as Justin Elliott of ProPublica has detailed, the largest and most well-heeled broadcasters (other than CBS) are howling in outrage and spending a fortune hiring lobbyists to keep that from happening. They claim it would be an onerous financial burden. The opposite is true — it would cost no more for a station to key the numbers into a computer than to write them out by hand and file them away.  

Broadcasters also say this would reveal sensitive pricing information (in an outrageous and embarrassing comment, Allbritton Communications Co. executive Jerald Fritz said it would lead to “Soviet-style standardization” of ad sales).

The problem with this line of attack is that all of the information on ad sales has been part of the public file for decades. So, in effect, broadcasters such as Fritz are admitting that their existing public files are themselves a farce — they have hidden away the information. The advertisers with whom they negotiate have always legally been able to get access. It is the public that is left in the dark.

Broadcasters are fighting against any online disclosure. But if there is any, they are trying to get the FCC to put mushy, aggregate data online that would make disclosure much less meaningful.

The FCC proposal is actually a modest one. The agency has the authority to order broadcasters to put online within 24 hours the identity of the real ad buyers, including the actual big funders of their ad buys, not just the names of the directors of their organizations. It can require the disclosures to be accessible to everyone, including reporters, researchers and voters using regular search engines. And it can make sure that rivals know where to go, and what to pay, to have rebuttal time.  But the FCC plan is still a significant step.

It is more than ironic that broadcasters, the guardians of the public interest and presumably champions of transparency, have become the biggest adversaries of the public and of transparency. It is shameful. And to those lawmakers who used to champion disclosure but now are carrying their water: Shame on you, too.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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