This special edition of the Politics Hour combined local and national politics live from Slim's Diner in Petworth, Northwest D.C.
The election year is heating up and by the time it’s over some $3.2 billion will be spent on political T.V. ads. Laws require that the terms of those ads–how much they cost, how often they run, and whether any are rejected–be available to the public. But groups like Pro Publica have long argued that if the information isn’t online, it’s not truly public. The FCC agreed, recently handing down new rules requiring the four major networks in top markets comply immediately, with broader rules to follow. We explore how this will affect campaigns nationally, and in swing states like Virginia.
- Justin Elliott Reporter, ProPublica.org
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, a new focus on how parents and communities can better protect children from unseen dangers, but, first, it's already shaping up to be a hot election year in races around the country. And political candidates are expected to spend more than $3 billion on TV ads.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWho's airing those ads and on what stations and how much they cost is public information. But having those records tucked away in station files isn't public enough, according to groups like ProPublica. They've argued that the data has to be posted online to be truly accessible to the public. On Friday, the FCC agreed, handing down a 2-1 ruling that broadcasters must put the terms of political ads online.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWhat this means for broadcasters in our region and how it might affect swing states like Virginia is now the subject of discussion, a discussion joined by Justin Elliott. He's a reporter with ProPublica, an organization for journalism in the public interest. He joins us by phone from New York. Justin, thank you for joining us.
MR. JUSTIN ELLIOTTGood to be here.
NNAMDIWe are a public radio station, and though we're not affected by this ruling for a number of reasons -- we don't take political ads for one thing -- we do have what's known as a public file as all broadcasters are required to have. What kinds of things are in these files, Justin, which are required to be open to the public?
ELLIOTTYeah. There's a whole range of information in these files. I mean, there's things like ownership information, about who owns the station. You know, broadcast stations are required by law to have a certain amount of programming that's in the community's interest and children's programming. And so there's files detailing that.
ELLIOTTAnd then there's a subsection of it that's known as the political file, which is what was at the heart of the FCC's vote on Friday. And that goes into pretty granular detail about what political ads are being bought by who, for how much money, when they're running and so on.
NNAMDIJust in case anyone wishes to review WAMU's public files, they should set up an appointment with Anne Healy here. You can email her at email@example.com. This ruling applies only to political television ads. What information will have to be disclosed online now, Justin, and which broadcasters will have to comply?
ELLIOTTRight. So in terms of which broadcasters have to comply, the FCC has instituted sort of a tiered system. So immediately after this rule goes into effect, which should be some time in the next couple months or so -- it's not every entirely clear yet -- the top four major affiliates, which are NBC, ABC, Fox and CBS, I believe, in the top 50 television markets in the country will have to start posting their political ad data online. That will be available on an FCC website.
ELLIOTTThe estimate is that that will cover about 60 percent of the political spending in this election. That will leave out significant smaller markets in some swing states that are expected to be -- you know, have intense advertising. That includes some areas of Virginia and Pennsylvania and then elsewhere around the country. So the rest of the stations around the country will have two years until July of 2014 to come into compliance with the system.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Justin Elliott. He's a reporter with ProPublica, which is an organization for journalism in the public interest, taking your calls at 800-433-8850 on new FCC rules for political TV ads. Do you think broadcasters should put political ad information online? 800-433-8850. What do you think the public might learn from this information about political ads? You can also send us a tweet, @kojoshow, email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or join the conversation on our website, kojoshow.org.
NNAMDIJustin, your organization, ProPublica, has been pushing for this disclosure for some time, including a free-the-files campaign, asking the public to access this information at their local stations. What do you think the public might learn from this data?
ELLIOTTYeah. I mean, as you said, our organization, we've been inviting people, readers and other journalists around the country to go to their local stations and get copies of the paper files, which is, you know, as you can imagine, timely and sometimes actually costly process 'cause they sometimes charge up to 50 cents a page for copies. And then scan them in and send them to us, and we've been - and my colleagues here have been posting them on the -- online for everyone to see.
ELLIOTTBut, I mean, there's a whole range of interesting information you can learn from this data. I mean, first of all, you get a very sort of granular look at what the campaigns -- where the campaigns are buying ads, where the super PACs and other ad site groups are buying ads, how much money they're spending on each ad, what times they're buying ads, just that kind of sort of really detailed information that's not available in the campaign finance filings.
ELLIOTTAnother really important part of this is looking at whether the broadcasters are complying with a couple of requirements for political ads, one of which is they have to give equal opportunity to different candidates. So if a local broadcaster accepts an ad buy from Obama, then they also have to accept an ad buy from Romney essentially to simplify it. That might not be so relevant in the national races.
ELLIOTTBut if you get down to some local race where maybe the TV station owner is friends with one of the candidates, you can imagine there might be a temptation to not give equal opportunity as they're required to do by law. So looking at this information will really allow journalists and the public to assess whether or not they're giving equal opportunity.
ELLIOTTAnother requirement is the broadcasters have to give the lowest -- what they call the lowest unit charge, which is essentially the lowest cost ad to candidates for political ads. So looking at this data will also allow us to assess whether or not candidates are getting the lowest rate as they're legally required to.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. Do you think we need more disclosure on so-called super PACs and their spending? 800-433-8850. You can also send email to email@example.com. You mentioned lowest rates, Justin. Doesn't it make sense that the networks don't want to put that information online? They say it's something of a trade secret.
ELLIOTTRight. I mean, that was one of the main arguments or the -- sort of the final argument made by the broadcast industry against this rule. They actually -- the industry now did a pretty intense lobbying effort in the past couple of months at the FCC to fight this rule, and they ultimately failed, at least mostly. And their argument sort of shifted. In the beginning, a few months ago, they were arguing that this was going to be a clerical burden to have to put this information online rather than just keeping it on paper.
ELLIOTTOf course, advocates of disclosure said, well, it actually should be more efficient to keep it online. But when we were getting up close to the vote on Friday, the broadcast industry realized they think that something was going to pass. So they shifted their argument to try -- they were essentially trying to water down the rule. And their argument was, well, because we have to extend the lowest rates by law to candidates, putting this information online is going to make it easier for other advertisers to see what our lowest rates are.
ELLIOTTAnd that's going to hurt our negotiations with other advertisers, whether it's, you know, the car dealership in town or whatever the case may be. You know, the advocates of disclosure countered to that, that, look, I mean, this information is already public by law. It has been for years. Putting it on the Internet is really just bringing the disclosure and transparency rule into the 21st century.
ELLIOTTThe FCC rejected a sort of counterproposal that would have given less -- that would have posted less data online by the broadcasters. But they did announce that they're going to be looking at how this is going in one year to see if there's any changes that need to happen. And also, the broadcasters' trade group, which is a pretty powerful lobby in Washington, called the National Association of Broadcasters.
ELLIOTTIt's led by a former senator, Gordon Smith, said on Friday in response to the vote that they're going to be looking at their options. And some people think that that may include some sort of legal action. We don't know yet. They haven't (unintelligible)...
NNAMDIThey did lobby vigorously against it, so it's entirely possible that they may file a lawsuit. And I can just see the local advertiser making the argument that I want to say -- pay the same rate as the guy who ran for county council financing out of his own pocket. I don't think that's likely to fly.
NNAMDIThe data will now be online, Justin. But broadcasters may submit the information in any format. Why is that important?
ELLIOTTRight. It's important because -- especially for journalists, if you want to do any kind of large-scale or even medium-scale data analysis, if what you are working off of is a bunch of PDF documents in all different random formats, maybe with scribbled written words instead of typed words, it becomes very, very difficult to do anything with that. So what would have been better from a sort of a transparency perspective is if the FCC also required the broadcasters to not only upload this information on the Internet but to upload it in one sort of single unified format.
ELLIOTTThey didn't do that, so, you know, once this starts going online in -- later this year, we'll get a look at how useful it really will be. I mean, it's definitely a step up from having to go to every station around the country, but it's not -- it's not perfect.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Andrew, at the Media Access Project, clarifying access to files. Andrew says FCC rules specify that members of the public do not have to schedule an appointment to view public files, including WAMU's. It is available to anyone on request without an appointment. Can you validate that, Justin Elliott?
ELLIOTTYeah, that's right. And I've actually spoken with Mr. Schwartzman. He has been an FCC watcher for decades in Washington. He's absolutely right. You -- any member of the public can walk into any station, public broadcast station and -- or TV broadcaster and ask to see the public file. And it's the law that they have to be shown it. So you should just be able to walk in and check it out.
NNAMDIWalk in off the street and be able to do that, OK?
NNAMDIThank you for that.
ELLIOTTDuring business hours.
NNAMDIOh, yeah. Thank you. Here is Peggy in Olney, Md. Peggy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PEGGYHi, Kojo, I have a question for your guest. The upcoming election is estimated that each candidate is going to spend a billion dollars, a thousand million dollars each. Is that where all this money is going?
ELLIOTTI -- yeah, it's a great question. I don't have the exact numbers off the top of my head, and they're all sort of projections, of course. But I believe it's somewhere in the neighborhood of about three quarters of campaign spending is generally spent on advertising. And the vast majority of that is television advertising. So the basic answer is yes. I mean, the vast majority of all that -- you know, we hear so much about fundraising and what candidates and elected officials do to fundraise.
ELLIOTTAnd it is the case that the vast majority of that money is going to TV or at least the majority -- I don't know about vast majority -- is going to TV advertising. And so this is a very, very profitable time of year for the TV stations. It's also worth noting this is a very large pot of money. As you mentioned in the introduction, the projection is that over $3 billion is going to be spent on this sort of advertising in this election cycle.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Justin Elliott. He's a reporter with ProPublica. Peggy, thank you very much for your call. This brings us, of course, Justin, to the super PACs, political action committees that can now accept unlimited amounts of money. And they're expected to figure heavily in these campaigns -- political advertising. How do they fit into this ruling?
ELLIOTTYeah. So the political files that we're talking about that are going online, they do include the ad spending by super PACs or any other type of outside group. There's also 501 (c)(4) so-called social welfare groups. One of the main active ones is called Crossroads GPS. It's the conservative one that's been already spending many millions of dollars. And all of those ad buys will -- there'll be information on those -- in this -- in these files that are going online.
ELLIOTTAnother interesting thing that's in the public file is they're actually required -- the broadcasters are actually required to keep information on the executives and the boards of directors of organizations that buy political issue ads. So if you're really interested in who's buying, if it's some group you've never heard of -- you know, it's probably the easiest thing to do right now anyway is to just type in the name into Google. But there is also information about who's behind it that is kept in this public file.
ELLIOTTSo we should have better access to that going forward as well. And, again, this -- just as with the campaigns, the information that's going to be going online, at least in the top 50 markets, is going to be a lot more granular, a lot more detailed in terms of what the super PACs are buying and where and for how much money and so forth.
NNAMDIOf course, there's a presidential election in -- oh, and, I should, as a matter of clarification, ask you, Justin, it's my understanding the super PACs do not get the cheaper ad rates that politicians will be getting, right?
ELLIOTTThat's right, yeah. The qualified political candidate is -- they have to be extended the lowest rates by law. But that does not apply to outside groups, so that's even more lucrative for the stations 'cause they can -- as you can imagine, especially when you're getting closer to the election, there's a huge -- and if you're in a swing state, like Virginia, for example, there's going to be a big demand for prime ad time, and so that's going to -- you can be sure that's going to jack up the rates.
ELLIOTTAnd these outside groups, like American Crossroads on the Republican side or Priorities USA on the Democratic side, are going to be paying, you know, top dollar for that time.
NNAMDIOf course, there's a presidential election in November. Do you have any sense as to how that could affect whether this ruling holds up?
ELLIOTTI mean, it seems like, at this point, no one has issued a -- I mean, as you said, it was just on Friday. But no one has sued or anything like that. What they have said in terms of the timeline is this will go into effect 30 days after it's approved by the Office of Management and Budget. We don't know exactly when that approval is going to come, although the FCC told me when I asked that they didn't expect it to take long. So they are expecting that this information, again, in the top 50 markets for the four major affiliates in those markets will go online for -- in this election cycle.
ELLIOTTWhen that is, we don't know. If there is some sort of legal challenge, which, again, hasn't happened yet, that could theoretically throw a wrench into this. But right now, we're expecting this to happen some time later this year, and I -- and one other thing to add about the top 50 markets. It's actually not every station in those markets, and there are some important stations that'll be missing, such as the Spanish language stations. They're not included in this first round, so we won't be able to get a look at that until -- on the Internet anyways, until all stations have to come into compliance in 2014.
NNAMDIJustin Elliott, he's a reporter with ProPublica. We've been talking about the new FCC rules for political TV ads. Justin, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIGoing to take a short break. When we come back, a new focus on how parents and communities can better protect children from unseen dangers. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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