Bloomberg Media’s “View” discloses it doesn’t know campaign finance law

Oh my. Where to begin with today’s incredibly wrong-headed editorial at Bloomberg Media? Well, how about the beginning?

Today, under the headline Get TV Political Ad Data Out of the Cabinet,  Bloomberg offers up an editorial view that goes horribly wrong from the opening paragraphs.

“Since the Federal Election Commission has shown itself to be virtually incapable of ensuring transparency in campaign finance,” write the Editors, “it would be nice if someone else picked up the slack. It turns out someone can.”

“The Federal Communications Commission,” they continue, “has proposed requiring broadcasters to post online the name of anyone who buys time for political advertising along with the purchase price and airdates. It’s an excellent idea, made more salient in an era of shady super-PACs.”

Let’s start with that first line. The FEC provides incredible transparency in campaign finance. Every political committee (that is, PAC, Super PAC, candidate or party committee) must report all contributions and all expenditures to the FEC. Spenders that are not political committees – non-profits, corporations, unions – must report any expenditure over $250 to the FEC. All of this information is published on the FEC website, as provided by law.

Regulation of broadcasters is, of course, outside the jurisdiction of the FEC, just as regulation of campaign spending is outside the jurisdiction of the FCC. So what is the FCC talking about? The FCC has long required broadcasters to keep a log of who buys ad time for political purposes. The current question is a rather narrow one: whether the FCC should require stations to use a standardized form and put information about political ad buys on web within a short time period, as opposed to the current regulations, which merely require a maintenance of a good, old fashioned paper logbook. The FCC is not even talking about requiring disclosure of new information.

All of this has nothing to do with what Bloomberg calls “shady super-PACs,” by which they mean organizations that are regulated in incredible detail by the FEC and must, by law, make public, on the FEC’s website, all of their donors over $200, their vendors, and expenditures. (Our definition of “shady” is apparently a bit more restrictive than that of the View). Well, perhaps in one odd, indirect way it affects Super PACs – if the FCC’s proposed rule goes into effect, it will be easier for Super PACs to structure their advertising to compliment that of the candidates they support, since they will have almost instant information on when and where the candidate committees are buying ads.

In one sense, Bloomberg’s error is understandable. As is becoming more and more widely recognized, reporting on Super PACs has been abysmal. One who just listened to the self-styled “reform” organizations, such as Common Cause or Democracy 21, or who simply relied on the institutional press for information, would quite likely have many misconceptions about Super PACs, and what they do and do not disclose.

Part of the idea that Super PACs are “shady” and don’t disclose information stems from confusion about non-profits that can make political ad buys, such as the NAACP, Planned Parenthood, and the Sierra Club, which are not Super PACs. These organizations are required to disclose their ad spending to the FEC, but are not required to disclose their donors and members. But then, they never have been – this is nothing new. Indeed, the Supreme Court, in a series of decisions in the 1950s and 1960s, most notably NAACP v. Alabama, has upheld that constitutional right to privacy, even when running ads like this one. The FCC’s proposed regulations would not require that info, either.

And ultimately, we can’t be too sympathetic with Bloomberg for getting it so wrong. After all, they’re a big organization with plenty of resources. It is their job to get the facts right and to inform, not to misinform, the public. In a just world, today’s factually incorrect editorial might even get someone fired.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.