Two years ago, the Supreme Court decided in Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Committee that unlimited political campaign spending by corporations and wealthy individuals was permissible under the First Amendment.
To people who believed that moneyed interests already had an outsized influence on the electoral process, the decision was chilling. The ruling provided only one consolation for them: that this new battle royal environment is predicated on real transparency over who’s paying for the punches. Justice Anthony Kennedy, in his tie-breaking decision in favor of unbridled corporate speech, suggested that the Internet is the medium that allows this type of real-time transparency. He wrote:
With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters … The First Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way.
In this newly unregulated free market of political ideas, neither the ideas’ manufacturers (i.e., the Super PACs) nor their merchants (i.e., the local TV stations) are eager to reveal the price tag to the customer (i.e., the electorate). In other words, while campaign law requires certain types of reporting, the “prompt disclosure” online about PAC advertising spends that Justice Kennedy had imagined has not become a reality.
This is where ProPublica, the public interest journalism organization, comes in. According to ProPublica, in a world of instantaneous communication technology where public opinion is rapidly informed and influenced, reporters can’t sit around and wait for the Federal Election Committee to publish its monthly campaign-finance reports. So what’s a reporter to do? Every citizen has the right to show up at a television station and inspect the “public files” that contain its most current political advertising data, but even the most resourceful investigative reporter can’t be reasonably expected to track all this information down herself.
ProPublica’s PAC Track Campaign
ProPublica became interested in this dilemma after listening to a radio segment from “On The Media” in which former Federal Communications Commission adviser Steven Waldman expressed frustration that the broadcast industry won’t voluntarily publish political advertising data online.
Daniel Victor, a social media editor at ProPublica, decided that “if TV stations won’t post their data on political ads, we will.” Victor and his team have employed a crowdsourcing model and are asking citizens (including local reporters) from across the country to volunteer to gather this data from their local TV stations so that ProPublica can aggregate it and share it in precisely the way Justice Kennedy had envisioned. They’re encouraging participation using a Google Docs sign-up form (here), a platform that hints at how simple it would be for local TV stations to publish this data. And they’re using the New York Times Campaign Finance API to help visualize this information in a way that makes it easily digestible.
Victor told me, “In this case, crowdsourcing is not merely the easiest way to get the data — it’s the only way. We believe this can perform as a check on the spending that’s reported — one intrepid person discovered $70 million in unreported spending over 10 years in Michigan by visiting stations.”
Of course, the crowdsourcing model will only be successful if a critical mass of civic-minded volunteers sign up. Victor acknowledges this and said, “We need contributors in as many markets as possible. We won’t know how many states we’ll work on during the general election until we know how many people are interested in participating. So I’d ask them to blog, tweet, email or shout to let others know about the project.”
Why the Resistance?
If television stations are required to keep a continuously updated file that accounts for all the Super PAC and campaign advertising revenue they receive, and make that file available to any member of the public upon in-person request, why not simply keep and update that file on a publicly visible online portal? The FCC proposed such a rule change late last year.
Waldman recently wrote in The Columbia Journalism Review that the broadcast industry contends “that it would dramatically increase the burden on local stations, since some of the files are updated frequently during campaign season.” In his op-ed, which contains links to the FCC proposal and industry response, Waldman observes that “the rest of the world has figured out ways to use the Internet to reduce workload and cost. I’m not sure the broadcasters want to take the position that they will be the one industry that can’t possibly be expected to use the Internet to improve efficiency.”
Waldman speculates that TV broadcasters may be protecting the hand that feeds them. After all, political advertising is expected to bring them $2.5 billion this year (nearly four times the revenue from just 10 years ago). And Waldman points to a New York Times article by Brian Stelter that uncovers a flurry of merger and acquisition activity in the TV industry that is driven by the new-found fortunes of political ads.
If ProPublica has its way, we may achieve the type of transparency that Kennedy envisioned in the ruling that gave birth to Super PAC advertising. What’s more, news coverage by local stations may be more easily scrutinized to ensure, in real time, that no inappropriate correlations exist between the amount of advertising dollars they received and the tone of the political coverage.
Super PACs are a new reality of the media landscape for better or worse. They exist only to serve a specific candidate or a narrow cause. So it’s the television stations that serve — at least in theory — a more public interest, that are being held accountable for the advertising they broadcast across the public airwaves.
ProPublica thinks this accountability could take the form of publishing political advertising data, which they’re required to do anyway, regularly online. While ProPublica seeks a form of “transparancy-in-advertising,” The Annenberg Public Policy Center’s Flackcheck.org campaign recently called for “truth-in-advertising” when it launched a “Stand By Your Ad” campaign seeking to hold local TV stations accountable for the accuracy of Super PAC ads. That campaign points out that, while local TV stations “are required to air political ads by candidates for such federal offices as the presidency even if their content is blatantly deceptive … [they] have the right to bar so-called ‘third party’ ads or insist on the accuracy of those they decide to air.”
As the campaign season heats up, it will be interesting to see whether some socially responsible television stations will, when it comes to super PAC ad spending, prioritize the public interest over the profit motive. And whether transparency and accuracy are publicly compelled, as the Citizens United ruling had hoped.
Mark Hannah is the political correspondent for MediaShift. Mark’s political career began on the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign, where he worked as a member of the national advance staff. He’s more recently done advance work for the Obama-Biden campaign, the Presidential Inaugural Committee and the White House. In the “off-season” (i.e., in between campaigns) he worked in the PR agency world and conducted sensitive public affairs campaigns for well-known multinational corporations, major industry organizations and influential non-profits. He serves on the board of directors of the National Association for Media Literacy Education, is a member of the Public Relations Society of America and was a research fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. He is a graduate of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and received a master’s degree from Columbia University. His personal website is www.mark-hannah.com, and he can be reached at markphannah[at]gmail.com. Follow Mark on Twitter: @MarksTerritory