ProPublica today points us to some very peculiar behavior in Washington, D.C.: media companies pushing back against the government's attempt to make political spending more transparent.
Several publishers and broadcasters are opposing a Federal Communications Commission proposal that would require broadcasters to disclose how much political candidates spend on advertising, which would then be posted on the federal agency's website. The FCC will vote on the proposal on April 27.
Joining the parent companies of Fox News, the Washington Post, Politico, and NBC News, among others, to defeat or water down the measure is Cox Media Group, the the proud mama and papa of WSB-TV and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Apparently, these companies think posting this information, which is public by law, would hurt their bidnesses. From ProPublica's Justin Elliott:
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.
Yep, reread that last sentence. The information is already available for public review. A person just has to walk into the specific TV station and ask for a piece of paper. So people - including, if they're smart, competitors - have access to the information. Why fear simply making it available online.
CMG Spokesman Andy McDill says in a statement to CL:
Cox Media Group joins [the National Association of Broadcasters] and the nation's broadcasters to oppose this proposal. We believe business sensitive information, like political advertising rates and other advertising policies, should not be disclosed online.
We are not opposed to working with the FCC to provide online access to information which will provide insight into spending on political advertising, but we would like to do so in a manner which doesn't expose sensitive client information and damage our pricing and rate structure.
Finding that balance between protecting "sensitive client information" and serving the public interest will be difficult. How does a TV station disclose how much they charge a candidate for political advertising without, well, disclosing how much they charge a candidate for political advertising? (One proposal submitted to the FCC by the broadcasters, and which McDill included in a follow-up response, includes disclosing the aggregate amount that candidates spent on advertising.)
It's unfair to judge the AJC's staffers - or any other paper or TV stations' journos - by what the corporate suits decide to do. Still, it's strange to see media companies dragging their feet on such a matter, especially since, as ProPublica says, many of the firms' journalists can be found "suing for access to government documents, dispatching camera crews to the doorsteps of recalcitrant politicians, or editorializing in favor of open government?" (The AJC's lawyers, from what I understand, played a role in fine-tuning this year's rewrite of Georgia's Open Records Act.) Fighting the FCC proposal doesn't look good.
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