The Sunlight Foundation, along with Common Cause and the Campaign Legal Center, have filed with the FCC complaints against 18 TV stations claiming that these stations violated the FCC’s sponsorship identification rules by not identifying former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg as the true sponsor of issue ads bought by the Independence USA political action committee. The complaint (available on the Foundation’s website as part of a press release on the action) alleges that stations have an obligation to look behind the named organizational sponsor to identify Mr. Bloomberg as the true sponsor of these ads, as he has provided all of the organization’s funding and directs its actions. These same organizations filed a similar set of complaints last year, some also targeting Mr. Bloomberg and the PAC with which he is associated, complaints which, for the most part, remain pending at the FCC (see our article here).
These complaints are very similar to the ones filed in 2014, arguing that where a PAC is 100% financed by a single individual, the individual should be identified on the air as the sponsor, not the PAC itself. The petitioners claim that, by not identifying Mr. Bloomberg as the true sponsor, the public is deceived as to who is behind the ads. This is despite the fact that, in the required sponsorship disclosure statements filed in the stations’ public files, Mr. Bloomberg is identified, as required by the rules, as the Chairman of the PAC and as one of its two officers. Apparently, this required disclosure is deemed insufficient by these groups. But what will the FCC think?
In the last twenty-five years, the FCC has only once required that stations go behind the named sponsor of an ad, and that was where a tobacco company was funding an anti-smoking campaign, and the named sponsor appeared to be nothing more than a fictitious name used by agents of the tobacco company. Here, the PAC has been legally established, has filed its FEC paperwork identifying Mr. Bloomberg as the source of its funds, and he is identified as an officer of the organization in stations’ FCC public files. So if the FCC decides to require that stations identify him as the true sponsor, the Commission will probably need to announce new guidelines as to the situations in which an obligation to go behind a legally-organized entity that has paid for an ad would arise. While the issues have been raised in connection with a PAC, they could also arise in other situations. Would an individual have to be identified as the sponsor if the sponsor was a corporation, of which he owned all of the stock? What about situations where the individual provides only 95% of the money (similar to another case where this kind of complaint was filed, see our article here).
Thus far, the FCC has been reluctant to require TV stations to go behind the organization whose check is used to buy an ad. The FCC has not yet required that stations make a sponsorship identification that also names the source of the funds for the named sponsoring organization. This kind of requirement has been urged by some elected officials and advocacy groups, and opposed by others. Depending on the standards that are used, any such requirement could impose a burden on TV stations who, in many states, may already be burdened by the paperwork requirements in this upcoming active political season.
For more about the political advertising rules, see our recent post here, which also discusses the webinar that I will be conducting on these rules next week with the head of the FCC Office of Political Programming, and our Guide to the Political Broadcasting Rules, here