One of the biggest disasters with the broken campaign finance system is that we actually have no reporting mechanism for assessing how much money gets spent on campaigns, at least on television. Sometimes candidates and PACs will announce their spending on ads, but local stations are not obligated to publicly and fully report how much they make from political advertising. You see organizations like the Campaign Media Analysis Group quoted in articles about campaign finance, but they basically make educated guesses that involve a lot of legwork. The only way to truly find out how much one television station makes from political advertising is to physically go down to the station and find the person with that information. As a result, a lot of this information never gets reported.

An obscure ruling at the FCC could change all that and mandate broadcast disclosure of ad spending in elections. But media organizations are seeking to delay the rule long enough to keep it outside the 2012 elections.

The disclosure system would simply have broadcasters report their political ad revenue online, in local, state, and federal elections, not to mention issue ads. This is actually already publicly available information, and must be updated every 48 hours, including information on what groups purchasad the ads. All this new ruling would do would be to increase the transparency of that information.

Building on years of fact-finding, the FCC is poised this week to start a proceeding that will quickly modernize the current antiquated system of TV broadcaster public files—which members of the public must currently visit in-person at a station’s studio [...]

The new proposed system is based on a streamlined proposal submitted to the FCC over the summer, building on the Commission’s Future of Media report. The Report recommended bringing broadcasters into the 21st century by moving disclosure out of the file cabinet and on to the Internet. In addition, the proposal will reduce the tracking burden from a 365 days per year requirement imposed by the Bush FCC into a statistically-valid sample consisting of two weeks per quarter.

Under this proposal, citizens and journalists will be able to find out what broadcasters are doing to serve their communities. Broadcasters that are doing a good job will have a modern platform to demonstrate their achievements. The FCC’s new system will be a conduit that brings broadcaster information together in a single, easy-to-use place.

This is part of the “public interest standard” that comprises part of the licensing process for local television. But instead of keeping the information socked away it would be available for all. Of course trade associations for local TV want to eliminate that kind of transparency.

The National Association of Broadcasters and a group of state associations of broadcasters argue that it would dramatically increase the burden on local stations, since some of the files are updated frequently during campaign season. One broadcaster predicted they would have to add eight new staffers to manage such a new system. While they agreed that some other parts of the “public inspection file” could go online, the say the political file should be exempted from that policy.

On the burden point, I would merely note that most of the rest of the world has figured out ways to use the Internet to reduce workload and cost. I’m not sure the broadcasters want to take the position that they will be the one industry that can’t possibly be expected to use the Internet to improve efficiency.

The Citizens United decision actually called for this level of increased transparency, including the use of the Internet for “prompt disclosure of expenditures” (that’s from Anthony Kennedy’s ruling).

I suspect that local TV just doesn’t want to make public the obscene amounts of money they generate from political ad spending. We saw in Iowa the insane amounts of money used to purchase elections, and local TV receives the lion’s share of that money. And yet local TV is almost non-existent when it comes to decent campaign or public interest news coverage. Local news here in Los Angeles is almost entirely unwatchable. Some random third lead on Gossip Girl gets featured more often than Barack Obama or Mitt Romney.

The FCC kept open the public comment period on this rule until January 17, at the request of broadcasters. You can leave a public comment here. You can read the full rule from the FCC here.