Untold Stories Matter, Too

Posted by Michael Copps on May 31, 2016

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This blog was posted in partnership with the Benton Foundation.

Pretend you’re a journalist (if you really are one, ignore that but read on anyhow) and someone calls and says “I’ve got a good and timely story that I think your readers/listeners would like to know about. There is a government agency that has both the authority and the responsibility to help clean up our broken big-money election campaigns—and it is refusing to do its job.” Let me explain.

Billions of dollars are being funneled into anonymous, misleading, special-interest TV political advertisements that fill our living rooms with politics at its ugliest. These ads are aimed at influencing and winning your vote while distorting both the issues and the personalities of the candidates running for office. People, long-since sick of these ads, are also convinced that there is no solution, with Congress unwilling to legislate and an Administration unlikely to pursue the matter on Capitol Hill

Yet there is already a law—and even government agency rules—already on the books. And the kicker: the agency charged with implementing that law—the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)—resolutely refuses to do so, maybe because of powerful big money interests, perhaps because of the power of consolidated media, probably both.

For those new to this issue—and that would be a lot of us because of media’s silence on the story and the FCC’s covering it up—the requirement for Accountable Ads is in the Telecommunications Act itself, specifically in Section 317, and the (ignored) rules are in the FCC’s rulebook. The law and the rules boil down to this: people have a right to know by whom they are being persuaded and this requires disclosure of the true identity of an ad’s sponsor. Nothing unclear or arcane about that! A political ad claiming to be brought to you by “Citizens for Furry Kittens and Cuddly Puppies” that is really brought to you by some special interest is insulting to people’s intelligence—and to our democracy. Citizen advocate Ralph Nader put it clearly in a recent blog post: The actual ad sponsors, he said, “could be chemical companies polluting our water, big arms manufacturers wanting more over-priced government contracts, or banks who are opposed to proper regulation of their consumer-gouging tactics and their speculation.”

A study just out on broadcast U.S. Senate campaign ads counted 86,000 already this year. Tribune, controlling over 40 local stations nationally, expects to collect over $200 million in political ad revenue this year—up from their previous record of $166 million. Wesleyan Media Project and The Center for Responsive Politics report that the volume of presidential campaign advertising is doubling over that of 2012. The numbers are mind-boggling. By the time the polls close on November 7, I believe the amount spent on media ads will be $5 billion.

But back to my calls and visits with mainstream journalists. I don’t know about you, but the story I outlined for them would certainly interest me as a journalist. Indeed, we often read stories about agencies not doing their jobs, and laws being willfully ignored. And here is an example so germane to what will be the most expensive election campaign in all our history that it’s a natural fit for page one coverage or lead-off TV story: regulators ignoring their charge, behind-the-scenes lobbying on Capitol Hill, the outrageous power of big money, and the corporatization of our media. This story doesn’t even need a sex-capade to fly.

“So, Mr. or Ms. Reporter,” I say, “would you maybe, perhaps, just kind of dig into this a little and consider it for a story?”

I’ve talked to a number of the shining stars of TV and newspaper journalism, urging them at least to explore the matter. You would be amazed at the answers I get from these mainstream media mavens. One response (and I’m not making this up) was that the ad issue is too out-of-the-blue to cover. “Hmm,” I thought,” isn’t journalism supposed to dig beneath the surface to uncover issues? Isn’t news something new, often out-of-the-blue?”

Another journalist’s response was that he couldn’t write about this because it was advocacy and reporters should not advocate. I responded by asking how telling a factual story that people don’t know about can be interpreted as advocacy? I just want to get the story, the facts, out there for citizens to understand so they can then decide whether to be involved for, or against, or at all. The relationship between this pure journalism approach and advocacy is to my mind non-existent.

Anybody think there might be something other than a debate over the purity of journalism standards going on here? Well, let’s start with this. Most TV stations will take in more money running political ads between now and November than they will earn from those seemingly endless Toyota, Honda and Chevy ads you see when you turn on your local “news”. (BTW, in many—I’d say most—markets, political ads command magnitudes of air time more than hard news about the elections themselves. In Philadelphia, when last checked, the ratio was on the order of 45- to-1.) Anyhow, few will express surprise that money drives this. And in this age of consolidated media, with a few giants controlling what should be a decentralized and diverse industry, money wields more media power than ever. These companies merge, spending too much on the transaction, and then, in order to pay the price they cut back the newsrooms or, often, just shut them down. They have to turn a profit so that the wizards of Wall Street stay happy. These ads are closely watched in the financial markets, and god help your company if you do anything to lessen the returns. (Making the Presidential campaign into an inglorious reality show helps the bottom line, too. That’s why CBS’s CEO can say Donald Trump may not be good for America, but he’s great for CBS.) Corporatized, centralized, commercialized media is more destructively inimical to our democratic well-being than anything else I can imagine.

And yet . . . we can take a modest step, through Accountable Ads, to shine a little transparency on these big-money campaigns that are so near and dear to big media. Just knowing who is sponsoring them would help us separate the wheat from the chaff. And, a huge added bonus, I believe that rather than divulge their true identities, a lot of the special interests would stop running these kinds of ads. Wow—better TV and more democracy, too!

We might even have an ally in the Supreme Court. Yes, the same court that gave us Citizens United. Tucked away in that infamous decision that opened the money spigots wide is a crystal clear statement that if people disagree with what the court allowed, the best antidote is disclosure.

So now we have a statute, agency rules, and an encouraging Supreme Court all pointing us in the same direction.

Are you listening, FCC? Chairman Wheeler, isn’t it time to get this done? How about at the next monthly Commission meeting? Successive chairmen have swept this under the rug, hidden petitions away in desk drawers, and run the other way. The Wheeler Commission has done great work in many areas, far surpassing that of recent FCCs. But it won’t get an “A” until it ponies up on Accountable Ads. The special interests will oppose it, to be sure—nothing new about that. But the people will support it, in bipartisan fashion around the country. Republican voters don’t like faceless and misleading ads any more than Democratic voters do. We could have had this done in plenty of time for the 2016 elections (ditto 2010, 2012, and 2014, to name only the most recent). Please do this now.

And to my friends in the mainstream media: Please start covering an important story that people need to know. I think they would find it downright interesting.

Office: Common Cause National

Issues: Media and Democracy

Tags: Accountable Ads

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