Transparency Victory: Feds Will Require Broadcasters To Post Political Ad Info Online

An anti-Obama ad paid for by dark-money group Crossroads GPS.


Want to peruse Mitt Romney’s donor list? See who’s on a super-PAC’s payroll? Find out which campaign spends the most on Chinese take-out? All that information and more is a click (or four) away on the internet.

However, political advertising information—who’s buying ads, where they’re buying them, and how much they’re spending—remains in the pre-computer age. That information is only available on paper forms stuffed inside filing cabinets at the offices of the broadcasters themselves. These files are public information, yet they are nowhere to be found online. Reporters or citizens looking for ad buy information have to call up individual broadcasters or visit TV stations in person.

No more. The Federal Communications Commission on Friday ruled that TV stations must post online their publicly available political ad information, including who’s buying, what they’re paying, and how much airtime they purchased. TV ads remain the most potent (and pricey) weapon in a campaign’s arsenal, and making ad data readily available online is a game-changer for reporters covering the campaign.

There’s a catch. The FCC’s requirement impacts only the nation’s 50 biggest TV markets, exempting the remaining 160. As the Sunlight Foundation recently noted, TV markets in battleground states such as Iowa, Virginia, and Missouri won’t be touched by the FCC’s decision. Meanwhile, broadcasters in Los Angeles and New York, both cities where President Obama is expected to win easily, will be subject to the new online requirement.

Still, supporters of the online move hailed the decision as a step out of the shadows for political advertising and win for transparency. “This is a huge victory for the public interest and a critical breakthrough for transparency in an election year,” wrote Candace Clement of Free Press, a media reform group that lobbied for moving ad info online. “At a time when wealthy special interests are trying to buy elections, we now have a means to figure out how much they’re spending on these ads, and where.”

The National Association of Broadcasters, the industry’s main trade group which lobbied against the proposal, said in a statement that it “respectfully disagrees” with the FCC’s ruling. “By forcing broadcasters to be the only medium to disclose on the Internet our political advertising rates, the FCC jeopardizes the competitive standing of stations that provide local news, entertainment, sports and life-saving weather information free of charge to tens of millions of Americans daily.”

More MotherJones reporting on Dark Money

OUR NEW CORRUPTION PROJECT

The more we thought about how MoJo's journalism can have the most impact heading into the 2020 election, the more we realized that so many of today's stories come down to corruption: democracy and the rule of law being undermined by the wealthy and powerful for their own gain.

So we're launching a new Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption. We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We'll publish what we find as a major series in the summer of 2020, including a special issue of our magazine, a dedicated online portal, and video and podcast series so it doesn't get lost in the daily deluge of breaking news.

It's unlike anything we've done before and we've got seed funding to get started, but we're asking readers to help crowdfund this new beat with an additional $500,000 so we can go even bigger. You can read why we're taking this approach and what we want to accomplish in "Corruption Isn't Just Another Scandal. It's the Rot Beneath All of Them," and if you like how it sounds, please help fund it with a tax-deductible donation today.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate