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Who's Buying Your Election? New FCC Ruling Requires Broadcasters to Post Data On Ad Purchases

A new ruling by the FCC requires broadcasters to post political advertisement data online, making it easier for the public to see who is buying those ads.

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JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Bob McChesney, isn’t it, in essence, a relationship between the coverage and the advertisements, that the degree that the stations provide less coverage of political campaigns, it requires the politicians then to somehow get their message out one way or another, so the stations have, in essence, a vested interest in terms—economically, in less political coverage?

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Absolutely. It’s just logic of business that they would do this. I had a friend who was running for governor in a Midwestern state as a Democrat, who went around the state, and he wasn’t getting any television coverage. And he finally complained to the manager of a station. And they said, "You want to get coverage? Buy an ad."

AMY GOODMAN: There’s been an interesting report in the Committee to Protect Journalists—or, rather, the Columbia Journalism Review, looking at just one relatively small race, the Pennsylvania congressional primary between Democrats. Journalist Ken Knelly provided a comprehensive analysis of the local TV news coverage compared with the amount of political ads that ran on the same TV stations. His headline says it all: "28 hours of political ads (and a few minutes of news)." There were 3,300 ad spots run on the stations serving the predominantly Democratic district. Lost in the hours of ads, Knelly writes, was "very occasional" news reports on the race, and even those news reports had very little substance.

ROBERT McCHESNEY: I think that’s the pattern everywhere. I mean, all the research shows this. I don’t think there’s any listener or viewer of Democracy Now! who would say, "No, that’s not the case in my town. We’re really doing a great job here." We’ve seen a complete falloff of coverage in news media of elections. We’re in a situation now, Juan and Amy, where we’ve got lots of statewide elections that will be virtually no coverage whatsoever, that people will be voting for people they have no idea about, except possibly through advertising, and even then, they might—if they’re, you know, avoiding the ads, they might not even have that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Justin Elliott, I’d like to ask you about the vote itself. It was a two-to-one vote in the FCC? Aren’t there other members on the FCC?

JUSTIN ELLIOTT: Actually, there are—there are two members who are waiting confirmation in the Senate. Right now it’s only three members. It was a party-line two-to-one vote. The Republican dissented. And as Bob mentioned, I mean, the industry really launched a pretty aggressive lobbying effort against this. A lot of the biggest names really in journalism—I mean, News Corporation; Walt Disney, which owns ABC; NBC; the broadcast division of the Washington Post — a lot of these companies also own major newspapers—they were first lobbying to kill this rule. When it got up close to the vote, they made a counterproposal to water it down. The FCC rejected that, but the National Association of Broadcasters, which is the powerful industry trade group in Washington, has said that they’re looking at their options, and some people think they might file a lawsuit, which could theoretically hold this up, but we don’t know yet.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So this is the media fighting against greater public disclosure.

JUSTIN ELLIOTT: The companies that own the media.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That own the media.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Justin, you’re calling on people to go to all these stations?

JUSTIN ELLIOTT: Yeah, so my colleagues at ProPublica are asking people—you know, other journalists, journalism students, readers—to go to the stations, especially once this ruling goes into effect, which is expected sometime later this campaign. It will be stations outside the top 50 markets that the rule won’t apply to at first. Go to the stations. You don’t need an appointment. Ask for the political file. Make the copies, scan them in, send them to us. And we’re going to be posting them online. It’s called "Free the Files," if you go to Click on that.

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