Large broadcasters will be required to post documentation of who is buying political ads and for how much in time for the 2012 presidential election after a ruling by the Federal Communications Commission Friday. But by limiting the new requirements to the four biggest networks in the top 50 markets, the FCC shut down a chance at transparency in a year where special interest spending has made increased scrutiny essential.
The FCC decision came two years after Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a Supreme Court decision that found the government cannot limit corporation and unions’ independent political expenditures, which are funds that go toward the support of or opposition to a candidate or issue, but not directly to a candidate. That same year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit found in Speechnow.org v. Federal Election Commission that qualified groups could accept unlimited contributions for independent expenditures with limited expectations for disclosure.
The result was an explosion in spending by a new breed of political action committees, known as super PACs, that can accept unlimited funds from corporations, unions and individuals, often with very little disclosure necessary. Because their funding cannot go directly to a candidate, super PACs commonly put their money toward advertisements. ProPublica reported in April that super PACs have spent $3.8 million in Wisconsin alone since the 2010 decisions, with pro-Mitt Romney heavyweight Restore our Future leading the way after racking up $2.8 million in expenditures.
That is a huge influx of spending compared to the 2008 election. Considering Wisconsin’s status as a battleground state, the money will continue to pour in from both inside and outside the state right up until the election this fall. But ranking in at the No. 33 market, Milwaukee is the sole media market in Wisconsin that will qualify for the new FCC reporting requirements. According to Kantar Media/CMAG data obtained by the Washington Post, candidates, PACs and interest groups have spent $1.1 million in Milwaukee on ads for the 2012 presidential race. Considering the Madison, La Crosse-Eau Claire, Green Bay-Appleton and Wausau-Rhinelander markets all had TV ad spending between $400,000 and $900,000, reporting in Milwaukee will capture a very small fraction of the actual political activity taking place on the air in Wisconsin.
Under the new FCC rules, stations will be required to post lists of political ad purchases. They do not have to be searchable or particularly easy to parse; they just have to be out there. Anyone is able to request these records right now, but they are expensive and difficult to obtain. According to the Washington Post, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said the FCC spent $1,700 and 61 hours obtaining political ad purchase information from eight stations in Baltimore. The only parties that can actually take the time and money to obtain thorough documentation are actually political candidates themselves, who use the data to evaluate their opposition and decide where they need to place more ads.
Sadly, numbers like those in Baltimore apply to almost any U.S. market. Organizations like the Wisconsin Advertising Project and Wesleyan Media Project have begun to showcase the analysis and greater understanding possible when spending data is made public, but it is still too expensive to tackle on a broad scale or by interested individuals.
In a time of extreme political divides where super PACs will continue to grow in reach, the urgency to adopt greater transparency is extreme. The FCC decision expires in 2014, when the scope of the reporting requirements will be reconsidered. If the FCC is paying attention at all during the 2012 election, it will realize that what is meant to be public information ceases to be public when it is unattainable. With the Internet so accessible, there is no excuse to not let a little sunshine in and include markets like Madison in political spending disclosure requirements.
Signe Brewster (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior majoring in life sciences communication.