Broadcasters let out a small sigh of relief today when the FCC made clear there is no requirement that TV stations have private investigators on staff.
With TV stations’ political files now available online, three political activist organizations have been jointly filing complaints against TV stations alleging various errors and omissions in online public file paperwork relating to political ad buys by third-party advertisers. These three organizations, the Campaign Legal Center, Sunlight Foundation, and Common Cause, expanded their campaign (no pun intended) substantially in mid-July, when they filed complaints against a Washington, DC and a Portland, Oregon TV station. Rather than paperwork problems, however, these complaints claimed that the stations had failed to accurately disclose on-air the true identity of the sponsor behind certain “Super PAC” political ads. In both cases, the complainants asserted that their own research indicated the PACs were mostly or entirely funded by a single individual, and that the stations should have therefore identified that individual rather than the PAC as the sponsor of the political spot.
While there is ample precedent for requiring broadcasters to be comfortable that the sponsorship information in a political spot is accurate, the most recent complaints concerned broadcasters for two reasons. First, there apparently was no question that the PACs had indeed been the ones to write the check for the ads and were valid legal entities, so a TV station altering the sponsorship identification text to specify the station’s opinion as to who the “real” sponsor is raises numerous legal issues, not the least of which is that the station could well get it wrong. For example, it would be a pretty brazen station that would change the sponsorship identification on Microsoft ads to “paid for by Bill Gates” on the theory that Bill Gates was the main “person” behind the organization that wrote the check. Of course, in this example the station would be doubly wrong, as Bill Gates ceased being the largest shareholder of Microsoft in May of this year, demonstrating the risk a station takes in attempting to be the arbiter of who is “behind” an advertiser.
This example also demonstrates the second issue that concerned broadcasters about the complaints. If, in the absence of an obvious sham advertiser, broadcasters had an obligation to ignore the “name on the check” and attempt to discern the actual source of the check writer’s income, they would need a full-time staff of researchers doing nothing but verifying the structure of advertisers. In addition, the airing of political ads would be perpetually delayed while stations seek adequate certainty that they have discerned the true source of all ad funds.
The result would be a no-win situation for broadcasters, who would have to expend enormous resources trying to determine where an advertiser’s money comes from, and having done that, expose themselves to both private liability (from the advertiser who wasn’t credited as the sole sponsor of the spot, as well as from the individual who was) and regulatory liability (if the government disagrees with the licensee’s sponsorship conclusions).
Today, the FCC wisely avoided placing broadcasters in that conundrum, ruling in a letter decision that:
We conclude that the complaints do not provide a sufficient showing that the stations had credible evidence casting into doubt that the identified sponsors of the advertisement were the true sponsors. As the Commission has stated previously, “unless furnished with credible, unrefuted evidence that a sponsor is acting at the direction of a third party, the broadcaster may rely on the plausible assurances of the person(s) paying for the time that they are the true sponsor.” While the complaint against [the station] presented some evidence that station employees may have come across facts in the course of news reporting on political issues that could have raised questions in their minds concerning the relationship of NextGen Climate Action Committee and Tom Steyer, we exercise our discretion not to pursue enforcement in this instance, given the need to balance the “reasonable diligence” obligations of broadcasters in identifying the sponsor of an advertisement with the sensitive First Amendment interests present here.
While it is reassuring that the FCC moved quickly to reject the complaints, today’s action leaves the political sponsorship identification waters somewhat murky. In addition to the less than comforting “we exercise our discretion not to pursue enforcement in this instance” language, the FCC proceeded to state that “[o]ur approach might have been different if the complainants had approached the stations directly to furnish them with evidence calling into question that the identified sponsors were the true sponsors.” In using this language, the FCC suggests that the only problem with the complaints “might have been” that the complainants didn’t present their evidence to the stations while the spots were still airing so that the stations could have assessed the evidence at the time and decided whether to modify the sponsorship identification.
While that ruling is generally consistent with past FCC rulings, in that a broadcaster must be presented with “credible, unrefuted evidence that a sponsor is acting at the direction of a third party,” the FCC sidestepped the equally important issue of when a PAC’s sponsorship identification may be deemed adequate, or if PAC contributors must be listed instead. As a result, broadcasters are left wondering if a sponsorship identification will be second-guessed when 80%, 90%, 95%, 99%, or some other percentage of the sponsor’s income comes from one source. Similarly, what if only 50% comes from one individual, but the other 50% comes from another individual, and the two are say, brothers? Once again, broadcasters are being asked, on pain of liability, to make disclosure decisions for PACs that are more correctly the province of the Federal Election Commission.
Of course, the sponsorship identification requirement is not limited to political ads, and the flaws in the approach suggested by the complainants seem jarringly obvious when applied in the context of a business advertiser. For example, should ads for every Mom and Pop business disclose that the real sponsor is not the business, but Mom and Pop, who gave up their vacation this year in order for the business to be able to afford broadcast advertising? Similarly, if it is not the entity writing the check for advertising that is relevant, but the principal source of its income, shouldn’t all ads placed by defense contractors need to disclose the U.S. government as the actual sponsor of their ads?
On the other hand, if, as the FCC has suggested in past sponsorship decisions, the real issue is the identity of the decision maker for that advertiser, how could a broadcaster ever know that information with adequate certainty to reject the assurances of the advertiser and take on the liability of unilaterally changing sponsorship identifications in ads?
To be clear, no one is suggesting that a sponsor should be able to avoid on-air attribution by creating a phony front organization whose faux nature is obvious to all, including the broadcaster. However, a Political Action Committee is an entity legally recognized under the law, which is also regulated by law. If more information about its contributors is deemed a public good, Congress and the Federal Election Commission have the authority and the responsibility to take action to accomplish that result. In the absence of such action, the task should not fall to broadcasters by default.