Who Writes The Check? Group Wants Voters To Know A media watchdog group is asking the Federal Communications Commission to amend its rules, forcing greater transparency in who sponsors political ads. Over the years, the FCC has come to define sponsorship as editorial control. The Media Access Project says the defining element should be the hard dollars.

Who Writes The Check? Group Wants Voters To Know

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

People who live in political battleground states were bombarded last year by TV attack ads. They came from groups with vague names like Citizens for Strength and Security. Who's against that? And Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies. Organizations that advocate transparency in political campaigns are still looking for a way to make public the sources of money behind those ads. One of the organizations will today ask the Federal Communications Commission to impose new rules. Here's NPR's Peter Overby.

PETER OVERBY: The proposed rules would by no means expose all of the wallets that open every election year to finance ads. But they would catch the funders of an ad like this one, which ran against Democratic incumbent Peter De Fazio in Oregon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

OVERBY: Politicians Nancy Pelosi and Peter DeFazio made a mess of our economy. Their policies aren't working. It's time for a change. Art Robinson is...

OVERBY: Unidentified Woman: Concerned Taxpayers of America is responsible for the content of this advertising.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

OVERBY: Over the years, the Federal Communications Commission came to define sponsorship as editorial control. Schwartzman says the defining element should be the hard dollars.

ANDREW SCHWARTZMAN: Broadcasters are already under an obligation to use reasonable diligence to identify the sponsor. It's just that the current rules don't require the sponsor to be identified in terms of who is writing the check.

OVERBY: Today, Schwartzman plans to ask the FCC to amend its regulations. He's likely to find some sympathy on the five-member commission. In a speech last December, Democratic commissioner Michael Copps noted the FCC requires disclosure of paid product placements in TV shows.

MICHAEL COPPS: And that's fine. And I favor that. But shouldn't we be even more concerned when unidentified groups with off-screen agendas are attempting to buy election outcomes?

OVERBY: Political disclosure usually is regarded as a matter of election law - something to be regulated by the Federal Election Commission, or in some cases, by the Internal Revenue Service. But last year, Republicans in Congress blocked passage of a big disclosure law. And Schwartzman says the FCC has an indisputable role anyway, based on its own responsibilities.

SCHWARTZMAN: These rules are designed to address individuals or corporations substantially funding a campaign and using the name of a front group to hide their involvement.

OVERBY: There's also a chance the FCC will just tell Schwartzman to take a hike. Craig Engle says the climate is all wrong for any big changes. He's a campaign finance lawyer who helped run several outside money groups last year.

CRAIG ENGLE: I would be surprised if there could be any regulatory attempt to expand the content of disclaimers under current law.

OVERBY: Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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