Hypocrisy on Disclosure of Campaign Ads

Given the various constitutional problems afflicting efforts to reform campaign financing, it’s more than a bit important, particularly in the post-Citizens United era, that the purchasing of political ads be as transparent as possible. Yet, as Monthly alum Steve Waldman reports at the Columbia Journalism Review site, a number of prominent news organizations are actually fighting a small move towards greater transparency:

For those who haven’t followed the drama, the FCC has proposed that the “public inspection files” that local TV stations have long been required to keep—in a paper file, in cabinets, in their offices—be put online. These files contain invaluable information about who is buying political advertisements, for federal, state and local races. (See CJR’s recent exploration of some of these files in five states, and read about the New America Foundation’s ongoing efforts to crowdsource these files). The notion of moving the “public inspection files” from ink to pixels is not exactly radical stuff but it would make it easier for journalists to track the flow of campaign spending.

(Full disclosure: I was the lead author of a report that prompted this proposal to move the paper file to the Internet.)

Amazingly, the same news organizations that routinely demand transparency from government—and rely on the prompt disclosure of public information for their stories—are opposing the rule.

For instance, Politico regularly runs articles about campaign spending. Yet one of the strongest opponents of this transparency rule is Politico’s owner, Allbritton Communications Company (which also owns in WJLA, the ABC affiliate in Washington, and several other local TV stations.) Jerald Fritz, vice president of Allbritton, argues that putting these forms online is a slippery slope toward a “Soviet-style standardization” of how ads are sold.

Network-owned local television stations have also joined the parade of opposition to Internet disclosure of ad sales. There’s quite a broad pattern of letting the sales rep’s interest trump those of the reporter. And it’s not as though these are hungry times for the political ad biz, either. But more fundamentally, as Waldman notes:

This isn’t just another same-old-same-old case of an industry opposing a disclosure regulation. An important statement from the deans of twelve leading journalism schools put it well: “Broadcast news organizations depend on, and consistently call for, robust open-record regimes for the institutions they cover; it seems hypocritical for broadcasters to oppose applying the same principle to themselves.”

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.