Campaign Legal Center Urges Quick Action on Bill to Improve Disclosure of TV Stations’ Political Files

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The Campaign Legal Center recently called on the House Energy and Commerce Committee to move expeditiously to report out H.R. 4179, otherwise known as The Fair and Clear Campaign Transparency Act.

This legislation, introduced Dec. 3  by Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM), directs the Federal Communications Commission to issue regulations requiring television broadcasters’ political files to be made available in a machine-readable format.

“With the 2016 elections less than a year away, there are a record-breaking number of political advertisements running on the publicly-owned airwaves,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center.  “While establishing an online FCC database for the statutorily required public files kept by television broadcasters was an important step forward, the FCC has not finished its work because it has not required stations to make the information included in the public inspection file available in a searchable, sortable, downloadable format.”

Currently, broadcasters are uploading in pdf format whatever paper documents would have been placed in the public file.  Every station keeps its records somewhat differently.  As a result, the current database is difficult to navigate and does not permit the aggregation of spending by a particular campaign or outside group.

When the FCC first required that public files be placed online, it found that “certain information in the public file would be of much greater benefit to the public if made available in a structured and database-friendly format that can be aggregated, manipulated, and more easily analyzed; this continues to be our ultimate goal.”

The FCC’s own “Information Needs of Communities Report” observed that “[i]t matters greatly how [government data is] organized. It needs to be put out in standardized, machine-readable, structured formats that make it easy for programmers to create new applications.”

The letter urges the committee to report out H.R. 4179 expeditiously and points out that the FCC can use the data to create a database that facilitates analysis, including, among other things, an easy-to-use graphic interface as well as an application programming interface to permit searching and downloading of the documents and metadata en masse.

“Moving from pdfs to a database format may appear to simply be a technical matter.  It’s not.  Getting the information in a television station’s political file into database format is a key step in providing some of the disclosure the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld,” said McGehee.

To read the letter, click here.

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