On February 22, our Nevada correspondent, Jay Jones, visited NBC affiliate KSNV (owned by Intermountain West media mogul Jim Rogers) in Las Vegas. In the station’s 2012 political files, Jones found notes—for each flight of ads purchased—indicating how much the advertiser spent at KSNV as well as the total spend for the entire market, including a breakdown by each station. KSNV’s breakdown noted that at KTUD, a smaller station owned by Greenspun Media Group, $0 was spent—something Jones already knew from a trip earlier that day to KTUD, which turned up no 2012 political ad file at all.

From KSNV’s records on market-wide ad spending, Jones was able to see, for example, that in the run-up to Nevada’s February 4 caucuses, Restore Our Future (the pro-Mitt Romney super PAC) spent $24,795 at KSNV out of market total of $88,553. Mitt Romney for President bought two ad flights at KSNV, for airing between January 22 and February 4, totaling $39,750, while market-wide these two flights cost the Romney campaign $220,833.

KSNV’s records on market-wide ad buys were not unprecedented, but neither were they the norm. Our North Carolina correspondent came across similar data at WBTV in Charlotte, as did our Florida correspondent during a visit to WBPF. By contrast, this is how our Colorado correspondent, Mary Winter, described the files at KUSA, the dominant station in Denver:

Files look like something out of the 1980’s-’90s, not something an executive assistant would point to with pride. And much smaller than I expected.
In Detroit, our Michigan correspondent, Anna Clark, found notable differences in the content and presentation of files at WXYZ and WJBK. The files at Fox affiliate WJBK (but not WXYZ) included, for example, a clearance form summarizing each ad’s contents and clarifying, for example, that the Red White and Blue Fund had issued a “pro-Santorum” ad and that the 60 Plus Association ran “anti-Obamacare” ads targeting Sen. Debbie Stabenow. Also at WJBK (and not WXYZ), Clark reported:

Every folder had stapled into it the station’s “political disclosure” guidelines. Most folders included emails, mostly about the payment tracking process. [And m]ost folders included order worksheets that fairly clearly indicated the times that ads aired.
And even at stations where the files were rich with data, there sometimes appeared to be information missing. For ad buys that come from third parties, such as the 501(c)(4) group the American Future Fund, the FCC requires that stations list “the name of the person purchasing the time, the name, address, and phone number of a contact person for such person, and a list of the chief executive officers or members of the executive committee or of the board of directors of such person.” Our North Carolina correspondent, Andria Krewson, reviewed the AFF files at WSOC and WBTV in Charlotte stations, and didn’t find that full list of names in either. (In Detroit, too, neither WJBK nor WXYZ included this information in their files.)

More from Krewson in Charlotte, underscoring the variability in—and challenges in reading—these files:

The WSOC records showed the American Future Fund also as “ISS/Iowa 4 Responsible Gov’t.” One form, provided by the National Association of Broadcasters, states that the funding was provided by the American Future Fund, a corporation, and is signed in what appears to be computerized cursive by Sandy Greiner, with a phone number listed. Greiner is president of the board of American Future Fund and an Iowa state senator. I could not easily read her signature but Googled “Sandy” and “American Future Fund” to figure out the cursive. The WBTV files do not contain a similar document, but include an invoice showing payment from Mentzer Media Services, paid through “telerep-Philade.”

Given the variability in these files, a push for standardization would be welcome; such a move could make it easier for reporters and members of the public to find relevant information, compare data between different stations, and identify incomplete files.

With or without standardization, though, this material should be online. Some of these files were more of a “gold mine of information” than others, but all contained salient facts about how politicians and their allies are spreading their messages across the public airwaves. Those facts belong to the public—and they ought to be moved from the filing cabinets on to the Internet.

This story was written by staff writers Liz Cox Barrett and Greg Marx, with reporting by correspondents Mary Winter, Brian Crowley, Anna Clark, Andria Krewson, and Jay Jones.

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