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.)
Another note on access: At all but one of the stations our correspondents visited, they were asked to sign a visitors’ log noting their name, contact information, and affiliation. At WBPF in Palm Beach Gardens, our Florida correspondent, Brian Crowley, reports that he was also asked to fill in “why I want the records.” This was an exception. By contrast, at Fox affiliate WJBK in Detroit, Anna Clark, our Michigan correspondent, found in the log-in book a memo to employees reminding them they can not ask anyone for the purpose of a Public Inspection File inspection.
But they don’t seem to be accessed very often. A visitors’ log at WJBK, the Fox station in Detroit, showed 17 other visitors to see the public file over the prior year. (They included a Detroit News reporter, a representative from the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, and, yes, an employee of a rival station.)
If anecdotal experiences at other station visits are any guide, that may be a relatively high number. Representatives from stations in Charlotte said they do get periodic visits, typically from campaign staff checking on rivals. But a security guard at Denver’s KUSA recalled one other access request, about six months earlier. And a traffic manager at KTUD in Las Vegas said inquiries come along “not very often.”
The infrequent requests for access may explain station staff’s spotty ability, or willingness, to answer questions and help visitors understand the documents. Some correspondents reported helpful staff, especially at larger stations. Other exchanges were like the one with the brusque employee at Fox31 in Denver, who said, in reply to a simple question, “In seven years here I have never had anyone ask me that.”
The small number of requests might be evidence, as the broadcasters would likely suggest, of a lack of interest. Alternatively, they might be a sign that the headaches involved—trekking to station offices, dealing with on-site security, searching through file cabinets—are enough to induce motivated reporters and citizens to find work-arounds (and to deter entirely the less-motivated).
And then there are the headaches that come after gaining access to these files. The FCC’s requirements for the political ad files are the same for all stations and states (see Section 315 (e) for a full listing of the requirements, but, generally, the files are to include all political ad purchase requests, details about all ads aired including date, price and name of candidate to which ads refer, and contact details for and about purchaser of ads).
But what our correspondents found in visits to local stations was hardly uniform. In general, in reviewing these files our correspondents were able to:
Identify some salient facts about political advertising. Again, a low bar, but there are some ad sales numbers to be had in these files—numbers which, anecdotally, appear to be updated in a timely manner.