Watchdogs to FCC: Enforce, Improve Broadcaster Public File Accessibility Rules

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The Campaign Legal Center this week joined by Common Cause and the Sunlight Foundation, urged the Federal Communications Commission to strengthen the way the agency collects and discloses information to the public and to enforce its existing rules.  In a filing made in response to the agency’s request for comment on local public inspection files and political files, the groups, represented by the Institute for Public Representation of the Georgetown University Law Center, proposed changes to enhance the quality, utility and clarity of the information the FCC collects.

“These public files can be a great resource to the public.  But if broadcasters do not comply with the requirement and the FCC does not enforce the rules — despite receiving complaints detailing clear violations — then the public is kept in the dark,” said Meredith McGehee, Campaign Legal Center Policy director. “These are not arduous requirements.  It is past time to get these public files into the standardized, searchable, sortable format that is the agency’s professed goal and for the FCC to ensure broadcasters comply with them.”

The FCC and the public use the information from the public files to help evaluate broadcast stations’ performance, to ensure the stations address issues of concern to the communities they serve, and to ensure that stations comply the Commission’s policies.

In the comments filed at the FCC, CLC and the groups outlined two ways to improve the political file information collection.  First, the groups urged the FCC to improve enforcement. The Commission has never acted on complaints filed against TV stations that have failed to abide by the online file requirements, even though the agency has received proof of violations from CLC et al.

Second, the groups urged the Commission to require that data be reported according to a standard database format. Currently, TV stations submit PDFs of paper documents, even though the stations themselves keep the information in digital format. As a result of using PDFs, the current FCC database is difficult to navigate and impossible to accurately understand the information in the political file.  The FCC itself noted that a “structured and database-friendly format that can be aggregated, manipulated and more easily analyzed” is the Commission’s goal.  Using such a format is also less burdensome to TV stations that currently take data from a computer, print it out and then upload it to the FCC database.

Also, the Campaign Legal Center and the groups urged the Commission to extend the online public filing to other media and to require stations to file shared services agreements (SSAs), which give a station substantial influence over the operations of one or more stations in the same television market. SSAs have been used to circumvent current limitations on the number of media outlets that can be owned in a media market.

The request for comments was part of the Commission’s on-going compliance with information collection under the Paperwork Reduction Act.

Over the past several years, the groups pushed successfully to get the FCC to enact rules requiring broadcast stations to put their political files online in an FCC database, which took effect for all television stations July 1, 2014.  In a separate proceeding, the groups are also currently urging the Commission to extend the requirements to cable, satellite and radio.

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