Regular readers may recall that a few months ago, CJR published a pair of columns by Steven Waldman—the lead author of the Federal Communications Commission report “Information Needs of Communities”—that took local TV stations to task. At issue was a proposed FCC rule that would require stations to post their “public inspection files”—including information on political ad buys, now kept largely in filing cabinets at station offices—on the Internet.
The files contain a range of information that the government requires stations to track in exchange for access to the public airwaves. But Waldman focused on one data set:
One of the most interesting components of the file: broadcasters are required to keep a log of the political advertising that airs on their channel. This is a potential gold mine of information about who is spending what. The requirement applies to all races—national, state, and local—and issue ads, and must be posted rapidly (usually within forty-eight hours). Stations also must maintain a list of the executives or members of the board of directors of the groups buying the ads.
There are other ways to get much of this information—campaigns and super PACs are often eager to talk about their ad buys, and private companies will happily collect the data and sell it to you. The Federal Election Commission also publishes online the expenditures reported by campaigns, PACs, and associated committees, after the organizations report the data, which is often monthly or quarterly.
But the private data isn’t cheap, and the campaigns’ public comments aren’t comprehensive. And the FEC’s rules on reporting are convoluted and online search is tricky. Further, information about ad buys at specific media outlets is not required; often, only advertising agencies are listed as recipients of campaign money. And while in some cases the FEC publishes data online swiftly, the TV stations themselves are the only entity with a legal obligation to routinely make this information available to the public quickly.
Interestingly, in their ongoing efforts to oppose the new rule, representatives from the major networks have also focused on the political ad file. Making it truly accessible, they argued in a formal comment filed (PDF) with the FCC, would give political ad buyers and rival stations too much information about the ad market, thus putting stations at a competitive disadvantage. And so, from their perspective, making it hard for the public to get public records is actually a feature, not a bug:
Of course, stations’ public files are just that—public—and all of this information could be obtained by determined commercial clients and competitors by making a visit to a station’s studio. But it is one thing to travel to a station’s office across town during a hectic business day—a trip that would have to be frequently repeated to keep current with rapidly changing market conditions—and quite another to have the desired information instantly available without leaving one’s desk.
Of course, it’s not only “commercial clients and competitors” who might have interest in information about political ad expenditures; journalists, watchdog groups, and engaged citizens do as well. So we asked five of the correspondents from our Swing States Project—specifically, those based in Charlotte, Denver, Detroit, Las Vegas, and West Palm Beach, Fla.—to make that hectic mid-day trip, ask for access to the records at a couple of their local stations, and tell us about the experience and what they found.
Here’s what we learned:
The records are accessible. A low bar, obviously, but it’s worth pointing out. All of our correspondents were able to see the files, and none had to wait more than about 10 minutes or speak to more than two people in the process of finding someone who could help them.
We did encounter one access-related hiccup: on a second visit to KUSA in Denver, our Colorado correspondent Mary Winter asked for copies of the actual checks and contracts in the file for the American Wind Energy Association, one of the few political advertisers on the station in 2012. (KUSA charges 10 cents a page for copies; some other stations charge $1). The associate sales supervisor said she’d never fielded such a request and needed to ask her bosses for permission. It was late in the day, and that extra step necessitated another trip the next day. (The copies were eventually provided.)