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8/25/2014 12:41:00 PM
Require TV broadcasters to give info on who's buying political ads
Catholic News Service


In some Latin American countries, advertisers can get away with a lot more than they could in the United States.

For instance, actors can don white lab coats and pose as doctors or dentists pushing a myriad of products, like infant formula that claims to make a tot smarter -- all without the word "dramatization" at the bottom of the screen, or the cautionary "I'm not really a doctor, I just play one on TV" line.

The United States is good at weeding out shaky claims from most TV advertising, but it still needs to pump up its efforts in one category of ads: political commercials.

The government need not be the arbiter of whether claims made in ads are more fiction than truth. In fact, there is a growing army of fact-checkers in the private sector ready to point out claims in such ads that stretch the truth.

What is needed is stricter reporting requirements for TV stations to say who is paying for ads that may distort the truth in favor of one candidate -- or, more likely, against, competing candidates. The worst offenders seem to be groups that say they are independent of a candidate's campaign -- although that claim may itself may be false. These are the political action committees, known as PACs, or the "super PACs" that sprang up after a 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United.

The court cited the First Amendment, saying the government could not restrict independent political expenditures by corporations, labor unions, associations and the like.

The Federal Communications Commission recognized the need for disclosure on who's behind political ads two years ago, and required that TV stations in the nation's largest metropolitan areas to start putting online in an FCC-hosted database the information on who was buying ad time for each political commercial aired.

Before this requirement, individual citizens had to go to each individual station in a market and look at the details in the office -- and only there.

Since July, all U.S. TV stations must use the FCC's reporting system. And in August, the FCC issued a notice of intent to expand this political ad reporting to cable TV channels and satellite TV.

The notice of intent is sure to raise some howls of protest, and probably a lawsuit or two, from the cable and satellite firms, not to mention the ad buyers. One argument they may have in their favor is that the FCC would be acting outside its jurisdiction; its charge is what goes over the airwaves, not what's transmitted via skinny tubes underground or via utility poles.

But such disclosure could not come soon enough, given the amount of money changings hands on such ads.

A study of campaign ad purchases conducted for The New York Times estimated that the cost of all campaign ad buys for 2014 would top $2 billion, with nearly 70 percent more ads than 2010, the last midterm election year. More ads from so-called independent groups had run by mid-July of this year than had aired in the entire 2010 election cycle.

Compare this to parliamentary democracies, where elections can be called at any time but generally last no more than six weeks. Already, swing states are being targeted with a barrage of ads by big-spending PACs and super PACs, hoping to define a candidate negatively before a candidate can raise enough cash to buy ads to define himself or herself. The intent is less to promote one candidate than to tarnish the opponent. Partisans may very well have their minds made up, but fence-sitters may vote for the candidate who's not the trashed politician, or just avoid the polls on Election Day altogether.

The Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause and the Sunlight Foundation asked the FCC to expand its jurisdiction. These three groups, in their request, cited data that estimated that campaign ad spending on cable TV alone would double the $340 million spent in 2010.

One sign that the FCC is serious is that it also seeks comments on whether the ad reporting requirements should also apply to radio, even though the three nonprofit groups didn't include radio in their request. Another sign the commission is serious is that it acted on the request one week after it was made. In some cases, the FCC can take years to decide whether to take action.

"This requirement is so minimal, it's a no-brainer," said a statement from Michael Cops, a former FCC member and interim chair who is now special adviser to Common Cause's Media and Democracy Reform Initiative. "The FCC should implement it promptly and then move to require on-air identification of who is really behind all these misleading ads."







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