The FCC must do more to ensure viewers know who is using political ads to influence their vote this election season.
TELEVISION watchers need to brace themselves for the worst this election season.
Hundreds of millions of dollars are likely to be poured into political ads narrated by ominous voices and designed to influence voters’ ballot choices.
Some commercials, paid for by campaigns, will conclude with candidates saying they approve the message. Viewers should be extra skeptical of any ads brought to them by independent political action committees with benign sounding names like Priorities USA Action, Believe Again, Unintimidated PAC and Right to Rise USA.
Such names reveal nothing about who the true sponsors of the advertisements really are. The Federal Communications Commission, which seems to turn a blind eye, should require more transparency and has the authority to do so:
• Section 315 of the Communications Act requires broadcast stations to identify sponsors of political ads in files available for public viewing. Not every station is complying, according to extensive research by civic watchdog groups, such as the Sunlight Foundation, the Campaign Legal Center and Common Cause.
• Section 317 requires advertisers and broadcasters to disclose to viewers and listeners the “true identity” of the person, group or entity paying for a political ad.
Many don’t, and the FCC has failed to enforce this rule.
Last week, 168 Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives signed a letter urging FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to quickly require that broadcasters reveal the names of political-ad sponsors on the air.
According to OpenSecrets.org, conservative groups by far dominate this type of campaign advertising.
Democracy is weakened when influence over the public airwaves is controlled by dark-money groups, whether on the right or the left, which have the power to raise and spend unlimited funds.
Citizens have a right to know when and why mega-rich individuals, such as former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the industrialist Koch brothers, pour their wealth into advocacy.
That’s why the FCC must do more as a regulator to restore trust in American democracy by ensuring campaign commercials are more transparent.