In the year of the super PAC, it looked as if citizens might get some relief through a Federal Commission Communications vote in April requiring TV stations to post online who was buying political ads and how much they were spending.
But pushback from broadcasters and the vagaries of an act that had been intended to provide better information now make it look like disclosure and transparency are nowhere in immediate sight.
Crossroads GPS, an independent Republican group supporting GOP candidate Mitt Romney, alone spent $25 million in May, much of it in attack ads directed against President Barack Obama.
Broadcasters say it is going to cost money to put all that information online in a way that viewers can easily find. Not so much, perhaps, in a state like Maryland, which is not expecting much national political advertising this cycle, but it’s another story in states where are lots of ads.
So, for now, instead of finding such transparency on their computer screens, citizens will have to go station to station and ask at the front desk to see paper copies.
“Basically, we’re in limbo on this now,” said Justin Elliott, a ProPublica reporter who has been covering the story since its beginning. The changes can’t go into effect until the Office of Management and Budget is finished reviewing them, and the National Association of Broadcasters is suing to get the rule overturned.
The most optimistic call by any analyst on when citizens might have a central online site to find out who’s behind the ads is July. And, meanwhile, we are in a presidential election cycle with major spending in battleground states mounting by the day.
The OMB review to which Elliott referred is part of The Paperwork Reduction Act, which was passed in 1980. There are review periods mandated in the law to guarantee that actions such as the one in April by the FCC comply with the rule.
The irony of that law delaying such vital information getting to the public is lost on reformers.
But even if the Paperwork Reduction hurdles are overcome by July, the broadcast industry is one powerful lobby with no shortage of lawyers. There’s still the NAB suit with which to contend.
Bill Hooper, general manager at WMAR-TV, Baltimore’s ABC affiliate, said he’s waiting to see how it all shakes out.
“We really have not focused on it yet, but we do know that it will take some additional man hours to post and maintain the information,” Hooper said. “For stations in battle ground states like Florida and Ohio, this could be a significant burden.”
Baltimore TV stations will surely get issue ads in connection with the Dream Act and Same-sex marriage referenda. But it is not clear, according to Elliott, whether that will be covered under the new FCC rule.
“I don't have a problem with our information being online,” said Bill Fanshawe, general manager of WBFF-TV, Baltimore’s Fox affiliate. “This information has always been available to the public.
The Sun is going to stay on this story. Check back here and at the Sun Investigates blog this election year for updates. Sun Investigates, by the way, is a terrific blog.