TV Stations Ignore Supreme Court-Approved Law on Political Ad Spending

Friday, December 20, 2013
(book by Travis N. Ridout and Michael Franz)

When a political advertisement appears on television, those responsible for it are supposed to provide detailed information with station officials so it can be made available to the public. This legal requirement, sanctioned (pdf) in 2003 by the U.S. Supreme Court, was intended to better inform voters about the individuals or groups spending large sums on campaign commercials. But it turns out that many television stations have ignored the law’s mandate and not bothered to collect all of the key information from political advertisers.


The requirement for TV stations to collect and disclose this information is buried in a section of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law (pdf). It requires the stations to provide detailed information about political ad purchases, including issues discussed and names of elected officials mentioned in the ads.


“Recordkeeping can help both the regulatory agencies and the public evaluate broadcasting fairness,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote, “and determine the amount of money that individuals or groups, supporters or opponents, intend to spend to help elect a particular candidate.”


However, a sampling of these records by the Sunlight Foundation found stations “often fail to report even the most basic information about the political ads that outside groups buy on their airwaves,” Jacob Fenton wrote for the organization.


The review of 200 ad buys showed that many commercial slots were purchased by unknown or obscure buyers or did not include how much was actually spent for the air time.


In terms of actual numbers, fewer than one out of six ads targeting federal candidates disclosed the name of the candidate or election. As a result, voters are left in the dark not knowing which special interest might be behind an attack ad.


This development is especially alarming, the foundation noted, given that spending on TV for campaigns increased 30% from the 2008 to the 2012 election to $5.6 billion.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Political Advertisers and TV Stations Ignore Disclosure Rules (by Jacob Fenton, Sunlight Foundation)

Local TV Stations Accept Big Money for Political Ads…and Don’t Ask Questions (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Appeals Court Approves Secrecy for TV Political Ad Donors (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)

House Republicans Reject FCC Rule to Force TV Stations to Publish Who Paid for Political Ads (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)


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