In 1983, 50 corporations controlled a majority of American media. Now that number is six. And Big Media may get even bigger, thanks to the FCC’s consideration of ending a rule preventing companies from owning a newspaper and radio and TV stations in the same big city. Such a move — which they’ve tried in 2003 and 2007 as well –would give these massive media companies free rein to devour more of the competition, control the public message, and also limit diversity across the media landscape. On this week’s Moyers & Company (check local listings), Senator Bernie Sanders, one of several Senators who have written FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski asking him to suspend the plan, joins Bill to discuss why Big Media is a threat to democracy and what citizens can do to fight back.
Sanders also expresses his dismay that such a move would come from an Obama appointee. “Why the Obama Administration is doing something that the Bush Administration failed to do is beyond my understanding,” Sanders tells Bill. “And we’re gonna do everything we can to prevent it from happening.”
Sanders explains why even "ordinary people" should be concerned the media and increased concentration of ownership in the media: "Bill, many of the viewers there are concerned about the growing gap, unequal distribution of wealth and income. They're concerned about health care, concerned about global warming, concerned about women's rights, health, and many, many other issues."
"If you are concerned about those issues, you must be concerned about media and the increased concentration of ownership in the media. Because unless we get ordinary people involved in that discussion. Unless we make media relevant to the lives of ordinary people and not use it as a distraction, we are not going to resolve many of these serious crisis, global warming being one. There are scientists who will come on your show and say, "Hey, forget everything else. If we don't get a handle on global warming, there's not going to be much left of this planet in a hundred years." Do you see that often being portrayed in the corporate media? I fear not."
In May, a previously unknown group started pouring money into Ohio's U.S. Senate race, considered one of the most important in the country and currently the nation's most expensive. The group, the Government Integrity Fund, has spent over $1 million so far on TV ads bashing Democratic incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown and praising his Republican opponent, Josh Mandel.
Like many other such non-profit groups that are playing a dominant role in this year's elections, the Government Integrity Fund is shrouded in mystery. It isn't required to reveal donors, nor has it answered questions about who runs the group. The Fund's barebones website lists no contact information beyond a P.O. Box.
The only name listed on incorporation papers for the group is a Columbus lawyer, William Todd, who told ProPublica, "I really have no role in their affairs." (In June, Todd also declined to respond to questions from a Huffington Post reporter, citing attorney-client privilege.)
But previously unreported documents filed with an Ohio television station pull back the curtain a bit: the Government Integrity Fund is run by a state lobbyist who in turn employs a former top Mandel staffer.
The lobbyist, Tom Norris, is listed as the Government Integrity Fund's chairman and treasurer. Norris owns an Ohio lobbying firm, Cap Square Solutions, and last year hired a top Mandel aide, Joel Riter, to work at the firm.
Riter's role in the Government Integrity Fund, if any, is not clear. The former Mandel aide declined to say whether he is involved with the group that is chaired by his current boss and running ads in support of his former boss.
"I can't talk to you about this," he told ProPublica. "I'm not going to comment on any kind of involvement I have with anyone."
Norris did not respond to requests for comment, nor did the Mandel campaign.
The documents identifying Norris as the chairman of the Fund are public because of a Federal Communications Commission rule requiring TV stations to keep detailed records about political advertisers. The files can be valuable, offering a look at exactly who is spending and how much. Until recently, the documents were only available by physically traveling to stations. ProPublica's Free the Files project has spotlighted the issue and this summer the FCC passed a rule requiring the stations in the nation's top markets to upload the files to agovernment website.
The documents were filed with a Cincinnati NBC affiliate, WLWT, one of the stations the group has been advertising on. Here is a Fund ad that attacks Senator Brown for purportedly turning his back on his younger, more honorable self. "Young Sherrod Brown was independent of Wall Street," the announcer says. "Today Sherrod Brown takes big money from those same corporate interests."
The Associated Press reported last month that outside groups have spent $15 million supporting Mandel compared to about $3 million on the Democratic side.
We still don't know who is putting up the money for the Government Integrity Fund's ads because the group is a non-profit "social welfare" group, which don't have to release donor information or register with the Federal Election Commission. Such groups are supposed to be "primarily" engaged in promoting social welfare but they have been flooding the airwaves with political ads in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United case and decisions by regulatory decisions.
Besides identifying Norris as the chairman of the group, the form filed with the TV station shows that the Government Integrity Fund has an office at 208 East State Street, a few blocks from the state house in Columbus. Riter, the former Mandel aide, also has an office in the building.
Asked about his office at 208 East State Street, Riter said: "Whatever office Government Integrity Fund has is not mine."
Outside groups are not allowed to coordinate with campaigns, but it is common for politicians' former aides to be involved with such groups.
Riter first worked as an aide to Mandel during the candidate's stint in the Ohio legislature. Riter then became field director for Mandel's campaign for state treasurer, joining the treasurer's office as constituent and executive agency liaison after Mandel won the race. Riter left his state job in the treasurer's office after six months to become a lobbyist at Cap Square in 2011. According to state records, the firm lobbies for a range of interests, including the Ohio Ready Mixed Concrete Association and medical device companies.
Riter was featured in a Dayton Daily News article earlier this year investigating Mandel's practice of hiring former campaign workers for state jobs. (That piece led a Democratic legislator to file an ethics complaint against Riter, who has contested the charges.)
The Fund was created in May 2011 and an affiliated super PAC, the Government Integrity Fund Action Network, registered with the Federal Election Commission two months later.
The super PAC, which does have to report its donors, has not been active and raised just $10,500 through the end of June, all but $500 from New York financier and benefactor of conservative causes Roger Hertog. Hertog also gave $5,000 directly to Mandel's campaign last year. Hertog declined to comment.
Brown campaign spokesman Justin Barasky said that the Government Integrity Fund is the fourth largest outside group on the Republican side in Ohio, behind such national outfits as the Karl Rove-affiliated Crossroads GPS. "We don't know anything else about them," he said. "They are the only secretly funded group that is based here."
Political Ad Data Comes Online 2014 But It's Not Searchable
by Justin Elliott ProPublica, Aug. 2, 2012, 2:38 p.m.
After a bruisingmonths-longfight between media corporations and the Federal Communications Commission, a government website came online today that will feature political ad data from television stations around the country.
This means that detailed files about political advertising 2014 which show who is buying political ads, how much they are paying, and when the ads are running, among other information 2014 will finally be available online. In the past, those interested in the files, which are by law public, had to travel to stations to get physical copies.
Though the new system is far from perfect, it will likely give the public and journalists a new window into how an expected few billion dollars are spent on political ads on local television this election cycle.
For now, only the affiliates of the top four broadcast networks in the top 50 markets will have to upload their political files to the FCC site. (The Sunlight Foundation has a map of the missing markets here.) All broadcasters will have to start complying in July 2014. And the rule is not retroactive for political ad data 2014 so the site will only have information on political ad buys going forward.
The FCC requires broadcasters to upload information on political ad purchases "as soon as possible, which the Commission has determined is immediately absent extraordinary circumstances."
So what can we find on the new site? So far, not very much. Few broadcasters have uploaded files. But there are a few examples of what we'll get more of in the coming weeks.
Here, for example, are the files posted by WCPO, the ABC affiliate in Cincinatti. If you navigate to the "Federal" folder, then the "President" folder, then the "Obama" folder, you will find this contract (.pdf) for an ad buy the campaign made this week.
You can see that GMMB Inc., a Democratic ad firm in Washington that works with the Obama campaign, paid a total of $67,110 for three days worth of ads on the station this week. The ads were targeting the 35 demographic and ran on shows including Jeopardy and the Jimmy Kimmel Show. The filing does not make clear which specific ad was run.
The new system has a few serious limitations.
It is difficult to get an overall picture of spending by a single campaign, super PAC, or other outside group. You can only search by station name, network affiliation, or channel number, not by, say, typing in the name of the political campaign or outside group that bought an ad. I asked the FCC about this and an agency official who declined to be named said that "plans are to have a search function shortly but the scope is yet undetermined."
Then there's the fact that, as we've previously noted, the FCC declined to require broadcasters to upload files in a single format. That means that it won't be easy to aggregate data and analyze it in volume. That's in contrast, for example, to federal election filings, which are uploaded in a single, so-called "machine-readable" format that can be analyzed with computers.
The head of the FCC's media bureau has said that putting the files in a single format is a "long-term goal."
The new FCC website is also still under construction. The "Help" section, for example, is blank. And a page for developers also appears incomplete.
Another part of the public file that is worth keeping an eye on requires broadcasters to post "a list of the chief executive officers or members of the executive committee or board of directors" of any entity that pays for ads or programming on a "political matter or matter involving the discussion of a controversial issue of public importance." This could come in handy when, as often happens around Election Day, opaque outside groups are created and start buying ads.
It's also worth noting that there's a range of other non-political information from broadcasters' public file that will be going online, including: information on who owns a station; an Equal Employment Opportunity file describing the racial makeup of a station's employees; a map showing where a station's signal reaches; descriptions of children's programming on the station; and a range of other information.
ProPublica launched a project earlier this year, Free the Files, to get readers to go to TV stations and send in political files to be posted on our site. Stay tuned for more coverage of the FCC and political ad spending.