It's taken me a few days to get to this, for reasons that will become clear in a moment, but NPR reporters visited Pittsburgh for a story aired last week on new trends in poiltical TV ads.
The story discusses a phenomenon noted previously here and a zillion other places: the rise of political ads taken out by shadowy groups with names like "Americans for Prosperity." Such groups avoid disclosing donors, making it hard to track who is trying to influence your vote.
But NPR adds a new wrinkle: asking how much the broadcasters who air these ads can be counted on to police them. And WTAE and KDKA don't come off looking so great.
You probably don't know it, but radio and TV stations are required to maintain what's called a "public file" -- open to inspection by anyone -- which keeps track of ads about politicians or issues of public importance. This is a decades-old requirement, recently updated in Section 504 of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. According to the law, stations must compile a paper trail on any ad that
(a) is made by or on behalf of a legally qualified candidate for public office; or
(b) communicates a message relating to any political matter of national importance, including: a legally qualified candidate; any election to Federal office; or a national legislative issue of public importance.
The paperwork must include such details as the amount of money spent, the time the ads run, information about the people buying the time, and "the name of the candidate to which the communication
refers and the office to which the candidate is seeking election, the election to which the communication refers, or the issue to which the communication refers."
NPR found that at both KDKA and WTAE, that last field was left blank:[T]he U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the most powerful voices in these midterm elections, logged 206 ads at WTAE in a period of three weeks for the Senate race and two House races. The cost: $134,000. That's for one station, in one market, in the chamber's nationwide campaign.
There are also many disclosure forms ... that give less than full disclosure; parts of the form are blank, and that's not atypical.
At KDKA, another TV station, there are more huge ad buys: On Sept. 7, the group Americans for Job Security booked a month worth of ads for which it paid $105,560 and left incomplete paperwork.
The group is required to fill in the name of the candidate that the ad is talking about, but it left the field blank
The NPR piece linked above includes an example of the Chamber of Commerce's filing with WTAE. And indeed, at the top of page 2, there's a blank space where the Chamber was supposed to identify the target of the ad. Partly becuase of that, it's not clear exactly which ad is at issue here. The Chamber of Commerce ads I've seen, however, have targeted Joe Sestak, claiming that he is but a lackey of House speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Based on such omissions, NPR concludes that "TV stations can't act as a watchdog of these groups."
I called up WTAE to see how they responded. Bob Bee, the sales director, told me that not every space on the form needed to be filled out, and directed me to Mark Prak, an attorney who represents WTAE's parent, the Hearst Corporation.
I had phone and e-mail exchanges with Mr. Prak, who was a garrolous and likeable guy, but who nevertheless gave me the strong impression that in a deposition, he'd reduce me to a quivering mass of jelly. The discussion was for the most part pretty arcane, but I'll try to summarize the station's position.
First of all, we're really talking about a few blank spots on a form: The really key information -- the details of how much the ads cost and when they were placed, etc. -- was indeed in the public file. (That's why NPR reporters were able to see it.) And the distinction "any political matter of national importance," might be a little blurrier than you'd expect.
Things that are only of state or local relevance, see, would not be governed under the law. And issues like gun control or abortion can be state or federal, since both levels of government have a hand in shaping such policy.
OK, but what if the ad in question really were the "Sestak is Pelosi's whipping boy" spot? Isn't that ad about a federal candidate, since Sestak is a Congressman running for Senate? And couldn't the rules apply in that case?
Prak, though, questioned whether a spot faulting Sestak's voting record was a matter of national importance -- or just for the people in that candidate's state. It may also be worth noting that this particular doesn't actually tell people to vote against Sestak: It merely urges them to call him up and tell him he's an asshole. (Or more precisely, to "tell [him] Pelosi's agenda hurts Pennsylvania taxpayers.") If you wanted to vote against him too, well -- that's your business. But the ad, strictly speaking, isn't about a federal election.
At the end of the day, I still think WTAE (and presumably KDKA and other stations) should have made sure the form was complete. I'm not sure how big a deal it is, but I'll bet the station made sure its $134,000 check was filled out properly. You know?
I also think, though, that the real story isn't whether the stations complied with the law ... but about what is legal in the first place.
First off, even if all the documentation had been complete, you still wouldn't know where the money for these ads is coming from. The people bankrolling these campaigns don't have to disclose their funding to the federal government -- they ain't gonna tell the TV stations either.
Second, consider that to do this story, NPR had to go to the stations themselves to review the file. (There's some rather breathless reporting from the WTAE parking lot.) How many members of the public who don't work as reporters, or campaign workers, are going to drive out to Ardmore Boulevard and look at this stuff?
In an internet age, it seems ridiculous to limit public inspection -- especially of records belonging to media oulets with strong web presences -- to those who come to the office. Maybe instead of worrying about whether all the boxes are checked, government officials ought to be trying to get this material out of the storage boxes -- putting it online where the public can actually see it. That would be a step, however small, for transparency and disclosure.
Which is why I'm not holding my breath.