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Political Issue Ads Must Be Reported in Public Record

WASHINGTON: Political issue ads are at question in the broadcast community, according to media attorney David Oxenford.

“In the last few weeks, I’ve been asked several times by broadcasters whether an ad should be considered an ‘issue ad,’” he writes at the Davis Wright Tremaine Broadcast Law Blog. “Usually, the ad in question deals with some sort of faintly controversial issue, and the broadcaster seems torn about how to classify the ad.”

In terms of rates, it doesn’t really matter, he said. The lowest unit rates apply only to candidate ads. Issue ads “are not entitled to special placement in broadcast schedules. As there is no Fairness Doctrine, there isn’t even a requirement that you treat both sides of an issue in the same fashion.”

The exception of a possible fairness obligation may arise if the issue being discussed is a candidate. The last vestige of the Fairness Doctrine, known as the “Zapple Doctrine,” is not yet entirely dead, Oxenford said.

So sans Fairness Doctrine and rates, the primary reason to identify issue ads at all is for the public file.

“Commission rules require that the sponsor of an issue ad be identified in a broadcaster’s public file, along with the sponsor’s principal officers or directors,” Oxenford said. “This is required for any ad dealing with a controversial issue of public importance. The ad does not need to deal with a political issue, or one to be considered by a government body. Any controversial issue of public importance merits the public file treatment.”

Additional disclosures may be required for ads dealing with a federal matter--e.g., those regarding matters to be considered by branches of the U.S. government or any federal administrative agency.

“It has been suggested to me that an issue ad needs to be identified so as to decide whether the ad needs to have a ‘paid for’ or ‘sponsored by’ tag at the end to identify its sponsor,” Oxenford said. “In fact, any ad where the sponsor of the ad is unclear--even a pure commercial ad, needs to have a ‘paid for’ or ‘sponsored by’ tag.”

A station was fined a few years ago for not identifying the local chamber of commerce as an ad buyer.

“When the ad is for a product, and the maker of the product is that sponsor, the commission considers the identification of the product to be sufficient sponsorship identification,” he said. “But where the actual sponsor is someone else, and it is not clear from the ad who the sponsor is, a broadcaster is required to identify that sponsor.”

Oxenford posts regular notifications and clarifications on broadcast regulations and lawmaking at DWT’s Broadcast Law Blog.