Just a month ago, the FCC denied complaints alleging that Washington DC TV stations had not adequately identified the true sponsor of political ads sponsored by a political action committee. When that decision came down – denied on procedural grounds by the Commission – we warned that it opened the door to more complaints in the current election cycle. Sure enough, a new complaint has been filed against one of the same DC stations, contending that in the current election cycle, it should have gone beyond the sponsorship identification of the PAC itself as the sponsor of the ad, and instead identified the sponsor as the individual who contributed the majority of the PAC’s funding.
The complaint, filed by the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause and the Sunlight Foundation, the same DC public interest groups that filed the previous complaints, alleges that WJLA-TV failed in identifying the true sponsor of ads by the Next Gen Climate Action Committee as Tom Steyer, the individual who they allege (based on FEC disclosures) provided the majority of the funding for the PAC. In last month’s decision, the FCC rejected a similar petition about the same PAC, deciding not to pursue the complaint as the station was not directly put on notice of the allegations raised in the complaints before the ads ran. In the new petition, the petitioners don’t allege that they made any contact with the station to alert the station about their new complaints. Instead, the complaint alleges that the TV station should have known about the issues because it is the same PAC that was named in last year’s complaint, and the station should have known about the petitioners allegations that the sponsorship tag is incorrect. But is there a real issue here?As we wrote in a previous story on the last set of complaints, the only case where the FCC has ruled that a station had an obligation to go behind an organization to find its true backer, and to identify that backer in a sponsorship identification announcement, was a case where a tobacco company had essentially set up and run a committee to oppose an anti-smoking ballot initiative. The Commission found that the organization had no true, independent existence as it was set up by the tobacco company and run by its employees. Here, the complaint is not one that says that the PAC is solely controlled and funded by Mr. Steyer, but instead that he provided “substantially all of the funding” for the PAC. The complaint attaches a list of donors to the PAC that appears to show that this one individual contributed about $36 million out of the $38 million that was reported by the organization in “significant contributions.”
But the Commission has never said that a station needs to identify all of the contributors to any PAC, and FEC rules don’t require it either (even though there have been various unsuccessful legislative attempts to require on-air disclosures about donors to PACs). In this case, the PAC does not seem to be the alter-ego of Mr. Steyer. Certainly, the $2 million contributed to the PAC by other individuals is not an insignificant amount.
So, while the Petitioner’s contend that Mr. Steyer should be identified as a sponsor because he contributed “substantially” all the money, where are the petitioners suggesting that the lines to be drawn? Here, they seem to be saying that getting about 5% of your contribution is not enough to make the group the only required sponsor. But what if the amount of additional contributions was 10%, or 25%? Where does the FCC draw the line and say that one person is the sponsor as opposed to a group that is named in the ad itself? Unless there are clear rules to tell stations when they must go beyond the named sponsor of an ad in their sponsorship identifications, we don’t see how the FCC can hold any station liable for accepting as the true sponsor the PAC or similar organization that is actually paying for the ad. But we’ll see what the FCC has to say as they consider these allegations – perhaps in the coming weeks.