Meet the Media Companies Lobbying Against Transparency

By Wire News Sources on April 20, 2012

by Justin Elliott

News organizations
cultivate a reputation for demanding transparency, whether by suing for access
to government documents, dispatching camera crews to the doorsteps of
recalcitrant politicians, or editorializing in favor of open government.

But now many of the
country’s biggest media companies — which own dozens of newspapers and TV
news operations — are flexing their muscle in Washington in a fight against a government initiative to
increase transparency of political spending.

The corporate owners or sister
companies of some of the biggest names in journalism — NBC News, ABC News,
Fox News, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Politico,
the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and dozens of local TV news outlets — are
lobbying against a Federal Communications Commission measure to require
broadcasters to post political ad data on the Internet.

As we have recently detailed,
political ad data is public by law but is not widely accessible because it is
currently kept only in paper files at individual stations. The FCC has proposed
fixing that by requiring broadcasters to post on the Internet details of
political ad purchases including the identity of the buyer and the price.

(ProPublica has been
inviting readers and other journalists to send in the files to be posted as
part of our Free the Files project.)

Over the past few months,
several major media companies have dispatched top executives or outside
lobbyists to the FCC to oppose the proposed rule or to push a watered down
version, disclosure filings
show. (The FCC is voting on the issue April 27.)

Among them are:

(ProPublica has published stories in partnership with many of these news organizations, and has an agreement with NBC’s owned and operated TV stations for pre-publication access to our news apps and a contribution by NBC to ProPublica.)

In a speech this week at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas, FCC
Chairman Julius Genachowski excoriated
the broadcasters as working “against
transparency and against journalism.”

The industry’s opposition
to the transparency proposal has sometimes been heated. In filings submitted to the FCC in January
and March,Allbritton Senior Vice President Jerald Fritz raised the
specter of “’Soviet-style’ standardization” of ad sales if political ad files are required to be put online in a single format.

In a February meeting
with the FCC, Walt Disney executives complained about the “logistics and
burden” of putting the political ad information online.

That same month, executives
from Disney along with NBC and News Corp argued
in a meeting with FCC officials that posting the political ad file would allow “competitors in the market and commercial advertisers
[to] anonymously glean highly sensitive pricing data.”

Television stations must by law must offer political candidates the lowest rates
on ads. Broadcasters have argued
that by making this information available online and not just at stations, it
would hurt their ability to negotiate with other advertisers.

Advocates for the online
disclosure rule have countered
that the political ad information is already public by law and the measure
would simply make the existing disclosure rules relevant for the Internet age. They
have also pointed out that keeping paper files in electronic form should
actually be more efficient for stations.

Albritton, NBC, and Walt Disney did not respond to requests
for comment on the FCC chairman’s charge that they have positioned themselves
“against transparency and against journalism.” News Corp. declined to comment.

Some media companies have
also pushed a watered down proposal to post only some of the public political
ad data, and to put it up on individual station websites instead of on a
central FCC website.

Washington lawyers
representing the other companies fighting the rule — Barrington
Broadcasting, Belo, Cox, Dispatch, E.W. Scripps, Gannett, Hearst, Meredith
Broadcasting, Post-Newsweek Stations, Raycom Media,
and Schurz Communications — lobbied FCC officials in February,
March,
and again this week.

The group suggested
that instead of putting the full, itemized political ad data online, stations
would post aggregate data once a week.

“What we were saying
is, if you want the public to be informed about what’s being bought at what
price, maybe there’s a simpler way to do it,”Mary Jo Manning, an attorney
representing the group, told ProPublica. “Transparency is
giving people information that is useful.”

But when the FCC pressed
the group for details on its plan, the stations said
they opposed posting even the aggregate data in a single format prescribed by
the FCC. They also opposed posting the data on a central FCC website, saying
they wanted to post the limited data only on the stations’ own websites. If
enacted, both of those stances would make it more difficult to get and analyze
the data.

Since there is a one-week sunshine period ahead of FCC votes, today is the last day that interested parties
will be able to lobby the commission before its public meeting April 27.

Update 4/20: As we have now noted, we have published stories in partnership with many of these news organizations.


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