TV Political Files Now Drawing Complaints, Scrutiny, Warnings

Posted on May 27th, 2014 by

Most broadcast stations don’t budget for legal fights over their public files, but TV stations might want to think twice on that front, especially when it comes to the political file.

First, a history lesson.  When the FCC adopted its online public file rules, it made clear that it was not going to use them as a means to snoop on broadcasters to check for compliance with the public file rules.  While that has not been overtly done, non-profit public interest organizations have surfaced to fill that role, and instead of just reporting on what they see in TV station online public files, they have taken to filing complaints with the FCC.

Take for example, the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit whose website states that “we believe that information is power or, to put it more finely, disproportionate access to information is power.  Indeed, we are committed to improving access to government information by making it available online, indeed redefining “public” information as meaning “online.”  Well, it would be one thing if they stopped at simply making information accessible, but apparently, they are in the complaint business as well.  And that means they can cost you money.

The Sunlight Foundation, along with the Campaign Legal Center, recently filed FCC complaints against 11 different TV stations, pointing out omissions from TV station online political files (things like a name missing on a piece of paper).  Now we’ll be the first to tell you that complaints aren’t that common at the FCC, but they do occur.

What is uncommon here is what happened afterward – a premature judgment in the form of a “statement” from the FCC Chairman before the complaints were decided.  In our view, the FCC Chairman’s statement, issued just after the Media Bureau sent inquiries to the involved stations – and before any adjudication of the complaints – smacks of anti-broadcaster bias.  The Chairman’s statement reads “I hope this serves as a reminder to all stations of their obligation to maintain political files in accordance with statutory provisions and our rules.”

Now wait one darned minute here.  If the Media Bureau has only just asked for information in order to make a determination about rules that have previously rarely been interpreted by the FCC, how is it that “this” serves as a reminder to stations to follow the political file rules?  No decision has been issued.  Heck, we don’t even have all the facts.  For all we know, some of the items complained about are de minimis, or inaccurate.  The stations haven’t even responded yet, for crying out loud.  Doesn’t that matter?  Apparently not.

Maybe the Chairman was referring to the complaints themselves when he asserted that “this” serves as a reminder.  But could it really be true that the mere filing of a complaint is a compliance reminder?   What ever happened to letting the process follow the FCC’s procedural rules and giving these stations a chance to respond before firing a warning shot at all broadcasters?

Ok, our rant is complete.  To all online TV political file holders – scrutiny doesn’t always come from the FCC.  Watch for newly minted “public interest” organizations whose digging has the power to raise the ire of government officials toward you so quickly that your eyebrows won’t soon return to their normal resting place.

For those TV stations who must begin populating their online political files this July 1st for the first time, a healthy review of your internal procedures and the FCC’s political file rules may be a good place to start.