The Campaign Legal Center and Sunlight Foundation filed FCC complaints against 11 major market TV stations across the country alleging that these stations had inadequate online political files.  The Center issued a press release about its filings, stating that these complaints “exposed widespread noncompliance with the disclosure requirements” of the law.  The press release went on to say “[w]ithout this information, viewers are denied important information about the organizations and individuals seeking to influence their vote through these ads.”  While the complaints ask that the FCC take appropriate action against these stations, including fines, and begin an education campaign to make sure that other stations don’t repeat these mistakes as the political file goes online for stations in smaller markets on July 1 (see our article here about the FCC’s reminder about this obligation), just how serious were the discovered deficiencies?  As discussed below, many of the issues raised seem to be minor, but they put stations on high alert that their online public files will be scrutinized and must be kept up to date with the utmost care. 

The complaints themselves (which are available through links in the press release) do not reveal widespread systematic violations of the FCC rules.  Instead, each complaints cites a single instance where the station named in the complaint in some way evidenced some noncompliance with the rules. And many of those instances of noncompliance are quite minor.  In each case, the complaints were about disclosures made about the sponsors of issue advertising.  The ads were from non-candidate groups.  In some cases, the ads named a specific political candidate, and alleged that they had voted the wrong way on some specific issue.  Other ads urged viewers of the station to call that Congressman to tell them to vote in a particular way on some issue of importance pending in Congress.  The complaints did not allege that the public file did not contain the names of the sponsors, or the amount that was spent on the ads, or the times at which the ads were to run.  Instead, the allegations in many of the complaints were that, in a single instance, the public file disclosures identified the candidates who were being attacked, but not the issue on which they were attacked.  Is this a violation of the rules?

The complaints allege that both the candidate and the issue should be identified, and a strict reading of the FCC’s rules may suggest that is in fact the case.  But is it really such a significant issue that it merits a complaint and a press release, as opposed to a simple suggestion to the station that this disclosure might be made slightly more precise?  Other violations are similarly technical. The FCC rules require, on issue ads, that the public file disclosure contain a list of the chief executive officers or members of the executive committee or the members of the board of directors of the sponsoring organization.  In certain cases, only one officer was identified, instead of all of the chief executive officers.  Other complaints contended that information was uploaded to the public file late.  And in some cases, while the information about the issue ad was uploaded to the issue advertising folder in the online file, the station simply forgot to identify either the candidate or the issue (or, in some cases, both).

While these isolated complaints against only 11 stations nationwide may not necessarily indicate the widespread noncompliance with the FCC rules that the press release suggests, it does make very clear that broadcasters need to make extraordinary efforts to get material into their public file on a timely basis, and to carefully observe the FCC rules for everything that is put in that online public file.  Once the file goes online, it is available for anyone to look at – at their leisure from any location anywhere across the country.  And this allows interested parties, pressure groups and even college students the opportunity to flyspeck the files to look for any instance of noncompliance, no matter how minor that noncompliance may be.  The FCC has been identifying children’s television violations that were not revealed in license renewal applications by reviewing documents in the online public file (see our article here), and now it appears that the political files will be subject to similar scrutiny.

For more information on what needs to be in the political file, one place to start may be our Guide to the FCC’s Political Broadcasting Rules, here.  And review the other obligations for the online public file (see for instance, our article about the online public file, here).  Review the FCC’s rules and policy statements carefully, and observe them to the letter, as the online public file has introduced a whole new level of scrutiny (and risk) to your station recordkeeping. 

Update – 5/2/2014, 3:00 PM EDT – After positing this article, I heard from someone associated with the group that filed the complaints to say that the instances of noncompliance cited in the complaints were just representative of the issues that they found.  Rather than there being isolated potential violations at these stations, it was indicated that there were many other situations where stations had not met their political recordkeeping obligations.  This news obvioulsy heightens the warning for broadcasters to get their houses in order.  Your public files are being watched, and the public is looking for the information required by the FCC rules. So make sure that the files are complete and accurate.