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.

For example, in reviewing files at WBPF in Palm Beach Gardens, our Florida correspondent Brian Crowley found the following:

Poring over the [six-inch-thick] binder, the most notable thing is that a good four of those six inches is occupied by Romney’s campaign, which spent nearly $85,000 on this station in the four weeks leading up to the January 31 Florida primary. The campaign’s 110 spots included time on ABC’s food and style program, The Chew.
From a perusal of the files at KTUD in Las Vegas, for another example, Jay Jones, our Nevada correspondent, determined that 2011 was a slow year on the station—the largest buy was from the US Chamber of Commerce, for $1742.50. And among the bits of information Andria Krewson, our North Carolina correspondent, found in WBTV’s files in Charlotte: for January and early February, before the South Carolina GOP primary, Obama 4 America spent more on ad buys ($67,770) than did the Mitt Romney campaign ($31,855).
Also at WBTV, Krewson discovered that Robert Pittenger, running for US House District 9, was the only local candidate as of March 9 with his own file (showing he had spent $42,805 for ads scheduled to run through March 11). “Beware the data,” Krewson added. “His name is spelled ‘Pettenger’ in one file reference.”

Which leads us to our next takeaway:

There’s real variability from station to station in both the presentation and comprehensiveness of files. FCC requirements are the same across the nation, but the files themselves aren’t. Our correspondents reported that some appeared incomplete, some were disorganized, and some contained a surprising bounty of information.

The Editors