Even though the election is over, political broadcasting issues have not stopped. Yesterday, the same groups (the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, and the Sunlight Foundation) that had previously objected to the sponsorship identification of issue ads funded by PACs with a limited donor base have struck again. This time, they have filed a complaint with the FCC against a Chicago TV station claiming that it should have identified former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg as the true sponsor of an ad run by a PAC. That PAC stated on its website that it had been formed by the former mayor and, from its FEC filings, it appears that it was 100% funded by Mr. Bloomberg.
The complaint differs from complaints filed earlier this year about similar ads in that, in this case, the station was given written notice by the Petitioner of the claim that the sponsorship identification should have included Mr. Bloomberg. In previous cases, no such notice had been given to the station (the lack of such prior notice resulting in the FCC’s rejection of the initial set of complaints filed by this group, see our article here). In addition, this is the first complaint where it appears that the PAC in question was 100% funded by a single individual. See, for instance, our article here, where we asked in connection with previous complaints where the PACs in question were not 100% funded by a single individual how a station was supposed to know at what point the individual donor needed to be identified, and when there were a sufficient number of other donors that the identification of the groups as the true sponsor was proper. Will these factual differences mandate a different result from the FCC?
As we wrote when this round of petitions was first filed a few months ago, the one case where the FCC did require that broadcasters look behind the named organizational sponsor of an ad to the party providing the funding was one about 20 years ago, where a single tobacco organization funded a group that was run by its lobbyists and essentially had no other independent existence. There is no specific indication in this case as to who ran the PAC, though the petitioners did highlight that the PAC’s publicity materials did say that it was meant to further the goals of Mr. Bloomberg in supporting candidates with a similar political philosophy. In its decision denying the first round of the recent objections, the FCC seemed to be concerned about such situations (denying the petitions solely on the ground that the stations had not been specifically put on notice of the allegations that the named sponsor was not the true sponsor for FCC sponsorship identification purposes). So, if the FCC really wanted to make this point, it could go further in this case.
But, if it decided to do so, it should establish a bright line test for broadcasters to apply in situations such as this. Would identification of individual donors be required only when the donor was providing 100% of the money for the named sponsoring organization? Would the station need to actually research the FEC filings before accepting ads, or would they only need to look behind the named sponsor when there was a complaint? What would happen if there were no FEC records, or if the sponsoring organization claimed that there was a change in the donor base after their last FEC filing? All of these procedural questions, and no doubt others, should be addressed before the FCC imposes any new obligation on broadcasters to add additional on-air disclosures to political advertising run on their stations.