Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Waldman: The FCC's important step forward on media disclosure

Oct. 27, 2011, 3:02 p.m., Posted by Steven Waldman

Earlier this month, Knight Foundation announced several new efforts to help ensure that important public policy recommendations in the FCC's Information Needs report become fully realized. Included was the appointment of Steven Waldman, the report's lead author, as a senior media policy scholar at Columbia University.

Today, Waldman writes about other exciting developments regarding the report.

Steven Waldman: The FCC today took two important steps on the recommendations in our Information Needs of Community report.  First, it approved a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking – its way of making an official regulatory proposal – to take the current “public inspection file” online.  The public file is full of material broadcasters are required to disclose as part of their public interest obligations to communities. But it is on paper, sitting in a filing cabinet, where the public can only “inspect” it by going to the station offices. Almost no one does. Suffice it to say, in an Internet era this makes no sense.

 Some of the steps could really improve the quality of information that local communities get. For instance, the notice proposes that sponsorship identification disclosures that TV stations currently put on the air also be put online. This has a potentially significant impact on local TV news. One of the most disturbing trends we found in the Information Needs report is the persistence of “pay for play” cases, in which TV stations allow advertisers to dictate some of the content of their newscasts.    They currently have to disclose these practices, but it happens in fleeting, cryptic ways at the end of a broadcast. Under this proposal, they’d also have to put it online – creating a permanent, searchable record.  Before long, we can have Dirty Dozen lists of the local TV news shows that most often prostitute their shows. I suspect it might help dry up this odious practice.

Just as important, broadcasters are required to disclose how many political campaign ads they get and from who. This proposal would put that online.  If this becomes a final rule, it would significantly improve the access that the public, and reporters, have to real time information about campaign ad spending at all levels.

The FCC decided to break up the disclosure agenda into a few pieces. There is a second item – a “Notice of Inquiry” – to take a further step.  Today’s move mostly takes the current paper disclosures and puts them online.  The Notice of Inquiry would actually try to improve some of what’s asked of broadcasters.  It is partly DE-regulatory, eliminating a burdensome “enhanced disclosure rule.” It will ask for public comment on a new approach – call it streamlined disclosure – that will require broadcasters to give information about what kind of local programming they’re doing but in a more streamlined, less burdensome way than previous commissions have attempted. This could be very helpful.   

At today’s FCC meeting, Chairman Julius Genachowksi said “we intend to act… in the very near future” on this second part.  I look forward to seeing how this plays out.

These are exciting steps.