We were more than a little concerned when we read last week that Ann Ravel, chairwoman of California’s Fair Political Practices Commission, was considering regulations requiring bloggers to disclose if they’re being paid by political campaigns.
Not because we would ever even consider taking money to write something favorable or unfavorable about any candidate, campaign or cause (we have way too much fun being absolutely unaccountable to anyone), but because of our concerns about that whole freedom of speech, freedom of press thing.
So we rang up our old friend Ann to hear about her policy concerns, and to discuss how best to address them without running roughshod over the First Amendment. We’re happy to report, after our conversation, we think she agrees with us that the best way to confront secret payments to websites that propagandize for their retainers lies in stricter, more timely and precise reporting of campaign expenditures.
Ravel is right to worry that, at a time when voters increasingly get their political information from online sources, they need to know if what they’re reading is bought and paid for. There are, after all, scumbags out there who secretly take money from political entities and then use their platform, including blogs, to support one candidate or cause and attack their opponents, never revealing that they’re tools.
But the FPPC exists to regulate and require disclosure of campaign fund-raising and expenditures – not to meddle with the free press, whether that’s KCRA or KNBC, the Los Angeles Times or San Jose Metro, Calbuzz or FlashReport. Requiring a newspaper (or its online web log), a bloviating blogger or non-partisan political news and analysis website (ahem, ahem) to print, broadcast or display any particular message is, on its face, a violation of the First Amendment.
Let the sunshine in: The way to best serve transparency, while respecting the First Amendment and staying within the purview of the FPPC, is to require political campaigns (and the consultants they hire) to disclose in detail who and when they pay media outlets, including blogs, and what they are paying for. And to require much more frequent and timely expenditure reports covering this area.
In the normal course of business, a news, analysis or aggregation web site may sell ad space to anyone who wants to buy that space. If a web site charges, say, $350 a month for a small spot ad (like those on the right-hand side of Calbuzz Page One or the left-hand side of this story page), and if a campaign buys that ad at the going commercial rate, then this is a purely commercial transaction. The campaign must report it as an expenditure, but the blog has no obligation to report anything to the FPPC.
But consider two variations on the theme:
1) The web site gives the ad space to the candidate or campaign. That’s a non-monetary contribution valued at the difference between the commercial rate and the amount paid for the ad by the campaign. If Calbuzz gave a candidate or cause free spot ad space, we’d be making a non-monetary contribution of $350 a month. (If our contributions reached the $10,000 level, we’d have to file as a major donor with the FPPC.) Whatever the amount of the free ad space, the campaign would have to report its value as a non-monetary contribution and everyone would know Calbuzz had given to that candidate or cause. [Note: We don’t do this.]
2) The web site receives substantially more than its commercial rate for an ad for a campaign or cause, like Red County did in 2010. As we reported then:
… for those of you who remember our report back in February when we noticed “a $20,000 disbursement to Green Faucet LLC, which is an investment firm owned by Chip Hanlon and also the parent company of his Red County web sites.” The payment was made about a week after Hanlon fired Aaron Park, the erstwhile, paid sock puppet for Meg rival Steve Poizner.
Hanlon told us the $20k was nothing more than payment for advertising on his web sites, but we found another Red County advertiser who was paying about $300 a month for the same size ad, suggesting the subsidy was something more than it was supposed to appear.[emphasis added]
No shit. Since then, Meg has paid Hanlon’s Green Faucet $15,000 a month for a total now of $110,000! Which means everything you read on Red County and from Hanlon is nothing more than sock puppetry of the first water.
This is what Ravel is most concerned about. As loathe as we are to stand up for the First Amendment rights of right-wing sock puppets, the solution is NOT to compel Red County to publish some sort of statement (although it probably would have to file as a major donor.)
Sloppy wet puppets: Instead, the Whitman campaign should have been required to demonstrate that the funds it paid to Red County were strictly for advertising at the standard commercial rate. Which, of course, they couldn’t. Instead there needs to be a category for expenditures that is something like “online propaganda” or “sloppy wet kisses” or “sock puppetry” or something that lets people know what the money was really spent for.
And if the funds are paid to a consultant, who then pays the blogger (or tweeter, Facebooker or emailer), the candidate should still have to detail what the money was spent on. The challenge would be finding a way to make the disclosure in real time; it would be worth exploring the feasibility of requiring the campaign to see that such paid messages contain a tiny url link to a campaign-hosted site, that says this message was bought and paid for by so-and-so.
As long as the FPPC’s web site remains the difficult-to-navigate, nearly impenetrable data labyrinth that it is, none of this will help average voters. But if Ravel hires a couple of 24-year-old web designers to make her a flashy new web site and put someone in charge of pulling out the news from the myriad reports that are filed, she just might have the impact she’s looking for.
We can see the Calbuzz headline now: “FPPC Fingers Red County as Whitman Sock Puppet.”
We’re all for disclosure and transparency. And freedom of speech.
PS: To see our earlier foray into the FPPC thicket, check here.