Photograph by Frank Lukasseck/Getty; Illustration by Bloomberg View
Photograph by Frank Lukasseck/Getty; Illustration by Bloomberg View

Since the Federal Election Commission has shown itself to be virtually incapable of ensuring transparency in campaign finance, it would be nice if someone else picked up the slack. It turns out someone can.

The Federal Communications Commission has proposed requiring broadcasters to post online the name of anyone who buys time for political advertising along with the purchase price and airdates. It’s an excellent idea, made more salient in an era of shady super-PACs. It can be accomplished with no great effort by broadcasters.

In fact, television stations are already required to make this information available to the public. And it is -- if you go to a local station, in person, and ask someone to dig through a file cabinet.

The FCC thinks there’s room for improvement. The commission would like the information uploaded and stored digitally on a centralized database that it would administer. This would allow anyone who’s interested to see who is paying for political ads, what they are paying for them and where they are being broadcast. It would also allow broadcasters to meet the public-interest obligation they bear in return for their use of public spectrum, which yielded them an estimated $2.3 billion in political ad spending alone in the 2010 campaign and will probably produce even more political revenue this year.

Predictable Wails

The proposal has been met with predictable wails. Deploying the partisan cliche of the season, Robert McDowell, the sole Republican of the FCC’s three commissioners -- two short of its five-person mandate -- has called it a “jobs destroyer.” On the other hand, Hearst Television Inc. warned that the change from paper to digital could require as many as four new full-time employees per station, costing each station as much as $140,000 per year.

Neither claim is credible. However, broadcasters are understandably concerned about regulatory mission creep. The FCC should allay those fears by making sure disclosure documents are standardized, digitally scannable and restricted to essential information. Perhaps a greater concern to stations is the likelihood that readily accessible disclosure data will lead to a loss of control over pricing. Once that information moves from the back of a drawer to the Internet, not only campaign watchdogs but also commercial time buyers will have a fuller, more timely picture of the television marketplace.

In a reply to the FCC, one group of broadcasters acknowledged the need for information about political spending, but said it “is not immediate and can be satisfied by visiting the station either during or after the election campaign.” Really? The point is to know what’s happening with political spending in real time, so voters can factor it into their decisions at the ballot box. It’s impossible for even the most dedicated researchers to visit most, let alone every, television station. And “after the election campaign” is a bit slow for a functioning democracy.

Broadcasters contend their industry is being drafted to compensate for the deficiencies of the campaign finance system. They have a point. But modernizing existing disclosure requirements is not too onerous a burden. Given the shabby state of campaign-finance disclosure, the FCC shouldn’t wait until after November to adopt its sensible idea. For the next election cycle, it should require digital disclosure by large cable and radio stations. The expense is not great. The need is.

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