McAdams On: Political File Maneuvers

HOLY, COW: I’m beginning to wonder if broadcasting slaughtered kittens in a past life. Few industries seem to be as low on the karmic chain as this one. The Federal Communications Commission today voted to make TV stations publish their political ad rates online. Just TV stations—not newspapers, radio stations, billboard companies, cable networks, satellite TV providers, Internet streamers, sandwich board wearers nor those dudes that spin signs on street corners. Just TV stations—so that all other mediums can know what they charge for ads and adjust accordingly.

Ah, but it gets better. These things always do.

The ruling initially targets just the biggest broadcasters in larger markets. That is, the affiliates of ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox in the top 50 markets, meaning all of those networks’ owned-and-operated stations.

Let us now pause to consider the source of the most frequent and successful legal challenges to FCC rulings. (Pauses, gazes skyward, drums fingers...) Yes, that is correct. It would be ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox. How coincidental, especially given the FCC passed similar rules in 2007 that generated so much broadcaster opposition, the commission itself requested a stay from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. This is the Mixed Martial Arts equivalent of falling to the floor and breaking your own arm when you know your opponent is going to dismember you.

Broadcasters went after the 2007 ruling for entirely different reasons, but the point here is that the top four broadcast networks have far more lawyers, guns and money than does the FCC, which is why the commission just can’t get indecency regulations to stick, for instance. That, and indecency regulations are sort of written as follows: “We’ll decide what’s bad. See if you can guess.”

With the political ad rate disclosure ruling, the commission transforms itself legally into a mallard dressed in a sequined tuxedo doing a leisurely foxtrot on a wall at a Ducks Unlimited banquet. There’s no way not to shoot at it. The FCC order singles out broadcasters, and only broadcasters, among all advertising platforms that rake in the bucks during the political advertising season. If that’s not a walking, talking lawsuit, I don’t know what is.

Of course, the big four will sue. They already submitted a counter-proposal to posting their individual unit ad rates before the FCC vote, which the majority roundly ignored:

“The compromise proposal would have permitted TV stations to provide summary information online, including the total amount of an advertising buy and the total amount of money a candidate has spent at that station on ads during a particular election window,” writes Paul Cicelski of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. “The compromise proposal would have kept commercially sensitive per-unit rate information out of the online public file, while still including this information in the hard copy of the political file for candidates to inspect regarding lowest unit rate and other political advertising requirements.”

Partial online disclosure is a perfectly reasonable and legal alternative to the FCC’s directive, but no dice. Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski reasoned that since the FCC has a new website, broadcasters can post ad rate information online. Or something like that. Genachowski went after broadcasters at the NAB Show in Las Vegas last week for opposing online ad rate disclosure. He said they had “elected to position themselves against technology, against transparency and against journalism.”

This is the same guy who refuses cough up the commission’s TV spectrum repacking model, had to be strong-armed to produce documents related to LightSquared, and wouldn’t so much as entertain a single question after his sermon at the NAB Show. I should know. I chased him out of the room along with two other reporters who wanted clarification on his claim that “our phones have been ringing at the FCC with broadcasters and their representatives expressing genuine interest in participating” in spectrum incentive auctions.

Here’s what we wanted to know: How many calls, and shouldn’t those numbers and the frequency of said calls be part of the public record, i.e., “transparent?”

But as a public servant appointed by the president of the world’s greatest democracy, Genachowski can’t be bothered by the little people. This staff members swept him out the door like he was Ray Charles, who, by the way, was not that rude.

And I can’t totally blame Genachowski for not wanting to chat with me, as much as I’ve jawboned him. I’ve also introduced myself to him because I think the people I criticize ought to be able to get a look at me if they want to, and tell me to my face what a deranged crank they think I am. But the two other reporters were from general consumer publications for which there was no excuse for such a snub.

I now will do some political disclosing of my own because I think it’s in order whether or not it’s journalistically wise. I am a Democrat from three generations of Nebraska Democrats. For those unfamiliar with Nebraska Democrats, they are not exactly party liners. And so I do not flame Genachowski from any particular political point of view, but from one of the conduct, intent and transparency of a high-ranking public official. That’s kind of my job.

Contrast the chairman’s mode of operation with that of Robert McDowell, the lone Republican FCC commissioner. McDowell was appointed during the Bush Administration during Kevin Martin’s tenure as chairman. Rather than auto-voting for The Man, McDowell became the biggest burr in fellow Republican Martin’s saddle. The man is whip-smart, plain-spoken and humorous. He gleefully goaded fellow Commissioner Mignon Clyburn into a high-five during an NAB Show panel discussion on political file disclosure. As Clyburn carefully attempted to counter McDowell’s succinctly stated opposition, she suggested deference to the majority, which now consists of herself and Genachowski. McDowell then raised his palm and said, “Hey, we have two-thirds of the commission right here!” (You probably had to be there...)

That’s not what makes him a right proper public servant. The fact that he makes himself available to reporters and candidly answers questions is part of what does. McDowell said he favored a regime by which the people buying campaign advertising have to disclose what they spend. However, neither spender disclosure nor the aforementioned counter-proposal of providing summary information furthers the chairman’s goal of making broadcasters seem as if they abuse their public-interest obligations.

When broadcasters take the FCC to court over the political ad rate disclosure ruling, the commission and its various lap dogs will start yipping that broadcasters aren’t serving their communities and therefore don’t deserve spectrum like wireless providers do. It’s a simple stretch, especially when inconvenient facts such as those regarding unused spectrum are ignored.

Broadcasters need to beware of the dancing duck. The bird is clearly stuffed with dynamite.
~Deborah D. McAdams