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Editorial: #NewsFAIL, or How Big TV Media Doesn't Want Online Disclosure of Who Is Lining Their Pockets

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, April 26 2012

ABC Chicago Public File (via ProPublica)

Tomorrow, the Federal Communications Commission is scheduled to vote on a proposed rule that would require broadcasters to post online their "public file," a list of all the political ads that run on their channels, who bought them, and what they paid. The rule would also enable the agency to build a central website compiling all the data in an easy-to-search portal. Right now you have to literally visit each TV station in person to access the paper records.

As ProPublica's Daniel Victor has pointed out, this would be a "transparency gold mine" that would allow the public to see much more easily who is trying to influence elections. Making this kind of public data available online is especially valuable at a time when so much political advertising is itself being paid for by groups that don't disclose their donors.

If you are one of those news junkies or open government advocates who follow transparency issues carefully, you probably already know about this measure. Thanks to the hard work of reporters like Daniel Victor and Justin Elliott at ProPublica, and Steven Waldman at Columbia Journalism Review, the details are out there. And so you probably also know that some of the largest and most powerful corporations in America are lobbying against the FCC proposal, claiming that the burden of converting paper files to digital records would be onerous (as if those paper records don't start out as digital spreadsheet files in the first place!) and making alarmist claims that putting the records online "would ultimately lead to a Soviet-style standardization of the way advertising should be sold as determined by the government." (That whopper came from a senior vice president of Allbritton Communications, the owner of Politico.)

You might even know that FCC chairman Julius Genachowski gave a tough speech at the National Association of Broadcasters convention last week, blasting them for being "against technology, against transparency and against journalism."

But guess who isn't covering this issue. Remember how often we are told that new media won't cover the important issues, and we need old-fashioned mainstream media to do the "hard work" of investigative reporting? Actually, old (read: commercial corporate) media has been failing to do hard-hitting investigative reporting for a long time before the Internet came along. This isn't Craig Newmark's fault, folks.

Consider the stunning lack of coverage of this issue:

  • The Wall Street Journal has done one story on the topic by Amy Schatz on March 14, titled "TV Stations Balk at FCC Proposal." It is owned by News Corp., which is lobbying against the proposal. It has not covered Genachowski's speech.
  • Fox News, also owned by News Corp., has not covered the issue. Nor has the New York Post. Nor has AllThingsD.com, also part of the Murdoch empire.
  • NBC News, owned by NBC Universal (which is now part of Comcast) and is lobbying against the proposal, has not covered it. Nor has MSNBC. Not even Rachel Maddow.
  • Nexis/Lexis actually turns up no coverage by any TV station. CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox and Univision have all filed comments at the FCC opposing the measure. The only mention of the FCC on CNN in the last three months is in a news brief about new rules that will limit telemarketer robocalls.
  • USA Today, which is owned by Gannett, which is lobbying against the measure, has not covered it.
  • Nor has the Arizona Republic, the Tallahassee Democrat, the Des Moines Register, the Detroit Free Press, or the Cincinnati Enquirer — all papers owned by Gannett.
  • The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, owned by Cox Enterprises, which is lobbying against the measure, has not covered it.

It isn't just news organizations owned by companies that we know are lobbying against the measure; there seems to be an almost universal lack of interest in the FCC proposal from mainstream media. Nexis/Lexis shows 28 mentions of "Genachowski" in broadcast TV transcripts from the last three months. None of them are about this issue.

His charge that the broadcasters are against technology, transparency and journalism has been reported in the Los Angeles Times, Adweek, Daily Variety, the Sun Sentinel and by the New York Times Media Decoder blog — no other newspapers, no broadcasters, no magazines have covered it. Those news hounds at Politico? They ran an opinion piece from Free Press's Craig Aaron and Corie Wright. The editors themselves haven't opinionated about it.

Asked about this, Politico co-founder John Harris emailed me, "We've covered this issue extensively, and have further coverage in the pipeline." He added, "Some of that coverage, but not all, is on the subscriber side of our site."

Walt Mossberg of AllThingsD explained their lack of coverage by saying, "We don't have a DC correspondent and don't focus much on government regs or the political process, as we concentrate on tech. When we do write about the FCC, it's typically about regulations or policies having to do with broadband or wireless spectrum or other issues directly concerned with the tech industry."

I also emailed USA Today for a comment about their lack of coverage, but hadn't heard back from them by this afternoon.

As for the blogosphere and social media, the picture is just slightly better. A Bill Moyers essay on the issue called "Who Pays for Political Ads" has more than 9,000 links on Google, for example. And Google shows about 250 hits for blogs mentioning Genachowski's "against transparency" charge. DailyKos, the Democratic progressive powerhouse, has just one of those hits.

So tomorrow's vote at the FCC is taking place in an almost perfect vacuum. (Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn is reportedly the swing vote.)

And yet the public couldn't have a greater interest in knowing who is paying to sway this year's elections.

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