Broadcasters Face GAO Investigation on Advocacy Ads

Congressmen ask accountability agency to probe whether broadcasters are informing the public of their financial stakes when they air issue ads

Federal lawmakers have asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate whether broadcasters have been adequately disclosing potential conflicts when they air advocacy ads promoting issues in which they have financial stakes.

“It has come to my attention that some radio and TV broadcast stations may air advertising or editorial spots to influence legislation to benefit their interests, and that this practice may not be adequately disclosed to the public,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee (photo, below), in a letter to GAO.

Although the GAO letter, which was also signed by Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., is dated Jan. 25, 2012, the request of the lawmakers is only now being released publicly.

Also read: FCC to Broadcasters: Put Political-Ad Information Online

“GAO should investigate the scope of these practices, whether the existence and value of such spots is disclosed to the public, and in what form, and whether any such disclosure is accurate and complete,” Issa and Quigley said in their letter.

In a statement, Quigley said that “the review that was requested is simply meant to gather facts to determine what, if any, action is necessary and makes no assumption of wrongdoing." 

In their letter to the GAO, Issa and Quigley raised concerns about issue-ad campaigns that the broadcast industry has aired over the past several years.

One of the on-air campaigns, which used free spots produced by the National Association of Broadcasters, urged public opposition to legislation that would have required broadcasters for the first time to pay royalties to record labels and performers for music broadcast on the air.

Another on-air advertising campaign, also relying on NAB-produced ads, said pending spectrum auction legislation "could threaten local TV," and the ad urged the public to "protect local TV."

In an interview, Dennis Wharton, an NAB spokesman, said the broadcast association had no idea how many stations aired the NAB-produced advocacy spots. But Wharton said NAB had recommended that stations participating in the campaign disclose the sponsorship of the ads in station files that are made available for inspection by the public.

“NAB believes appropriate disclosures were made on these messages,” Wharton said. “When free and local broadcasting is threatened by bad public policy proposals, we have a First Amendment right and responsibility to educate our millions of listeners and viewers.”

In their letter to GAO, Issa and Quigley said it wasn’t clear that existing disclosure requirements “result in full and adequate disclosure of costs or value of spots aired by a radio or TV broadcast station to influence legislation for its own benefit.”

Among the specific questions that the congressmen asked GAO to address in its investigation is whether broadcasters airing the issue spots accepted or aired ads presenting opposing views.

The two lawmakers also asked that GAO conduct its investigation on “an expedited basis, so that we may consider whether legislative action is needed.”

But Charles Young, a GAO spokesman, said the agency — which serves as a congressional watchdog — had yet to launch the investigation because it is currently working on higher-priority issues. “So I don’t know when we might get to it,” Young said.