FCC’s political ad rule disappoints supporters and foes alike

The online database the rule will create is likely to reveal how much candidates pay for the spots that dominate TV networks in election years, and could shed more light on what groups are paying for political advertising.

While many supporters of the ad rule applauded the action as long overdue, a number of activists decried the two-year exemption that the FCC gave to stations that are independent of any major network or outside the top 50 markets.

"Those missing markets include some key presidential battleground states, as well as states and districts with close congressional campaigns," said Lisa Rosenberg, a government affairs consultant with the Sunlight Foundation. "Moreover, by limiting the coverage to ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, the ruling omits coverage for political advertising on Spanish-language television that could be especially important this year."

Nonetheless, Rosenberg said, the FCC’s vote was a step in the right direction.

"The rulemaking today from the FCC makes considerable progress on disclosure," Rosenberg said. “But in order to have full disclosure on political ad spending, we need not just all media markets covered, but action from Congress to plug the disclosure holes created after the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling."

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), which had fiercely opposed the rule before the vote, said the FCC unfairly singled out the television industry for disclosure.

"By forcing broadcasters to be the only medium to disclose on the Internet our political advertising rates, the FCC jeopardizes the competitive standing of stations that provide local news, entertainment, sports and life-saving weather information free of charge to tens of millions of Americans daily," said Dennis Wharton, NAB’s vice president of communications.

NAB "respectfully disagrees with today's FCC decision and we're disappointed that the commission rejected compromise proposals proffered by broadcasters that would have brought greater transparency to political ad buying," Wharton said.

But Free Press, one of many groups that had pushed for years to have the disclosure rule approved, said the vote was a “win for transparency, open access to information and the public." 

"We're pleased that the FCC has ignored the overheated rhetoric and unsubstantiated claims of the broadcast lobby in this proceeding," said Corie Wright, a senior policy counsel at Free Press. "These modest measures will place minimal, if any, burden on broadcasters but will offer great public benefits."