Pulling back the curtain.
Not quite in time for the 2012 elections, the Federal Communications Commission has taken a huge step toward better informing the public about who's paying how much to try to influence voters through political advertising on local TV.
On April 27 the commission voted 2-1 to require broadcasters to post online the time each political ad runs, how much it costs and who paid for it. Stations will also be required to get the names of officers and directors of any groups that buy political ads. The rule will apply to state and local as well as federal elections.
That information is now available in paper files at TV stations, but anyone who wants to see it has to go to the station, ask to see the files and sometimes pay up to a dollar per page for copies.
That's the good news. The bad news is, the new rule doesn't go into effect until it's published in the Federal Register, which could take several months. Also, the rule initially applies only to stations affiliated with ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox in the top 50 U.S. markets; affiliates in smaller markets have until 2014 to comply with the rule. And the data, at least initially, won't be "searchable" in the way people now typically search for things on the Internet.
The U.S. Supreme Court took the lid off political donations in 2010 with its controversial Citizens United decision, which made it more important than ever that voters be able to discern who's bankrolling which candidate or issue.
TV stations are expected to take in as much as $3 billion this year from selling political advertising and, depending on how quickly the FCC rule goes into effect, some if not most of that money will have been spent before TV stations have to begin complying with the rule.
It is, nonetheless, a major step toward greater transparency in our elections, and that's all to the good.