Friday, April 13, 2012

Disclosure laws give legislators a break

By Bill Kraus

I know, I know. We should have term limits. We should cut their pay so we could guarantee that every legislator had to have a job in the real world. We should give them single-digit approval ratings.

What we should really do is give them a break.

The candidates for the Legislature are told how much money that any supporter can give them for their campaigns and that they must report the names, addresses, and occupations of all of the supporters who give them money.

When they get around to spending this money on advertising they to tell the audiences a.) why the voters should vote for them or, as is more likely in this lamentable era when attack ads are favored, b.) why the voters should not vote for whoever is running against them. These ads must be accompanied by disclaimers. The disclaimer on TV ads must say who they are and that they approve the message in the ad.

At the same time, organizations who are running the same kinds of ads in the same campaigns do not have to tell who gave them the money to pay for these ads. Their TV ads do have a quick less-explicit disclaimer. This shows the name of the organization that bought the ad in very light almost readable print for a brief second at the end of the ad well after the message has been read and absorbed.

Both disclaimers are flawed. The disclaimers should come up front, before the ad is displayed. The disclaimers by the non-candidates are incomplete as well. Both because they are so late and quick and because the people who put up the money to buy them are not identified in any public way. The further attempt to obfuscate this pertinent information is that the sponsors of these ads can do so under any label they care to use. A few are specific enough to be traceable to well known organizations. The rest are not. The names of these mysterious organizations are chosen because they are benign, even praiseworthy, and misleading.

The disclosure requirements are clearly unfair.

The most dramatic way to take the shackles off the candidates is to give them the same flawed disclosure requirements and free them from reporting the names of their donors or the amounts their donors can donate.

For reasons that are hard to comprehend, the candidates, once they become incumbents, don’t want to do this.

Maybe they could be convinced to support a playing field leveler on the disclosure announcement rule at the very least.

How about putting the disclosure up front instead of at the end, and requiring all sponsors to say who they are and that they approve of what the viewers are about to see?

This small improvement would have the admirable effect of protecting candidates from being blamed for ads they had nothing to do with. It also would give the viewers a chance to “consider the source,” which might turn some viewers away and warn the rest.

The next time anyone talks to a candidate, try asking him or her whether this disclosure idea which is intended to make that part of the process the same for everyone who is running ads in campaigns is something he or she would support if elected.

If they say they won’t, ask “Why not?”

Follow Bill Kraus on:
twitter / wmkraus

Bill Kraus is the Co-Chair of Common Cause in Wisconsin's State Governing Board

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