Two cheers for the FCC

A vote to put political ad information online is a good start toward more transparency

Update, 6 p.m.: ProPublica’s Justin Elliott reports that stations in the top 50 markets will have to start posting files 30 days after the Office of Management and Budget approves the new rule. FCC spokesman Janice Wise said the FCC does not expect OMB approval to take long.

Original Story: Will bluebirds sing us awake every morning after Lincoln-Douglas-quality presidential debates enlighten us every evening? Will the fierce grip of money and power over our politics and policy be seriously diminished?

Perhaps not. But two cheers anyway for Friday’s Federal Communications Commissions vote to require local television stations to post political advertising data online. It is a good step toward transparency in the realm of money and politics, allowing some citizens to know who is paying (and how much they are paying) for the political advertisements that will soon flood their airways, particularly in swing states. The commission voted 2-1 to institute the new rules, despite serious industry opposition.

As David Firestone wrote on today, partially quoting from today’s Times editorial,

That database will allow the public to see which secretive political groups are paying for ads, how much they are paying, and where the ads are running. In a political season that has been polluted with unlimited campaign contributions paying for dishonest attack ads, the vote for disclosure will “help the public get a far broader sense of the powerful financial forces driving today’s politics.”

Some caveats:

—The rules apply only to affiliates of the four major networks in the 50 largest markets. The rest of the stations have until July 2014 to comply.

—As ProPublica reported right after the vote, “the data will not be searchable or uploaded in a common format,” which will make it more difficult to analyze the information.

—It is not clear yet—at least to us—when these rules will take effect, though hopefully soon enough to matter in the current cycle. We’ll find out.

As regular readers know, CJR has been following this since Steve Waldman, a fomer advisor to the FCC, first wrote about it for us in December. We expect to write more about what this can mean for journalists and their readers and viewers in coming days.

Meanwhile, a tip of the hat to journalists who have been digging out political advertising information the old fashioned way and putting it online, such as WCNC in Charlotte, NC. That station’s I-team scanned documents from Charlotte’s four major stations—including itself—and put it all on a spreadsheet online.

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Mike Hoyt was CJR's executive editor from 2001 to 2013, teaches at Columbia's Journalism School and is the editor of The Big Roundtable, a startup that is a home for narrative writing. Tags: