New rules on political ads: how to mine them

Finding gold may require a group effort

A gold mine of data will soon be available to help make our political system more transparent, thanks to the Federal Communication Commission. But this gold will be useless unless it’s extracted, shaped, and polished.

Let’s first review what the FCC did—and did not do—last week. Local TV stations already collect information about political advertising; the FCC required that they move these paper records out of the filing cabinets on to the Internet. Stations in the top 50 markets that are affiliated with networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox) will have to put their files online soon; the rest of the stations have until 2014.

The first tranche of stations, in fact, will have to start doing this when the rule goes into effect, which will be as soon as OMB publishes it in the federal register. I’m guessing within the next few months.

The files are tantalizing because:

—Unlike Federal Election Commission records, it includes spending for state and local races.

Unlike the FEC records, it includes spending for national issue ads.

—Stations are required to update the files frequently, usually within 48 hours, a sprightlier pace than the FEC.

—Unlike the FEC, the FCC requires that outside groups, including Super Pacs, list the “chief executive officers or members of the executive committee or of the board of directors.”

Given smart, energetic journalists, the data could eventually allow for the following:

—Data visualization mavens could create color-coded, dynamically changing maps showing the flow of money to different districts or states on a daily basis.

—Reporters will also be able to tell which specific ads ran in which markets at what frequency.

—Local and hyperlocal journalists can find out quickly how much is being spent on particular campaigns, not just for the presidency but local races and ballot initiatives.

—Reporters can use the FCC files to check whether campaigns have been accurately disclosing their campaign spending. Shockingly, a study in Michigan found that far more money was being spent on commercials than had been reported to the state election office.

—By looking at which shows political ads run on, journalists can better understand what demographic groups the campaigns are targeting.

That’s the glass-half-full part. Now the truth is, while the FCC did a great thing in forcing this information online, the rule has real limitations, and the full benefits will not be achieved without some additional energetic and creative citizen action. Specifically:

Put the information in a better format. In order to get the information out in time for this election, the FCC agreed that the stations could upload their current paper files—in PDFs or other potentially cumbersome formats. These records will be housed in a central place, on the FCC’s website, and will likely be partly searchable. The agency indicated it may use Optical Scanning Readers to try to pluck data in some cases.

But the data will be far more useful if some of the key stats can be put into a single searchable database with information in a standardized format. Only then will reporters be able to do the sophisticated tracking, data visualization, and sorting that will make this data come to life.

Enter The Crowd: reporters, citizen volunteers, and public interest groups can go through the PDFs and put data in proper database cells. Public interest groups and journalistic entities are currently considering how to do this. Hopefully, a single database or API can be created by an independent third party that would allow for large numbers of dispersed reporters and citizens to code and load. I hope foundations and philanthropists on all sides of the political aisle will support such efforts.

Fill in the gaps. In order to avoid any possible burden on small stations, the FCC limited the 2012 implementation to bigger stations in bigger markets. That first wave of stations accounts for about 60 percent of the campaign spending. The rest don’t have to comply until 2014. In addition, Univision is excluded from the current rule, an unfortunate omission given the importance of the Latino vote in this election. But remember, these smaller stations already disclose the same information—in paper files in filing cabinets. In the months prior to the FCC rule passing, a number of groups sent reporters or volunteers out to copy the paper files. Now a similar coalition—so far, the Sunlight Foundation, Free Press, and the New America Foundation—is organizing to gather PDFs from these smaller market stations. I expect journalistic enterprises like ProPublica and CJR will too (as they did before), and I hope conservative groups join the efforts; transparency is not a partisan issue.

In the spirit of Spring (rebirth and renewal all around!) I’ll optimistically throw out another idea. The broadcasters aggressively opposed putting this information online, but late in the game, a group of TV station owners tried coming up with a plan to have the most important data provided in a searchable database. The stations could help their own reporters do their jobs better, prove to the community (and policymakers) that they zealously try to better inform the public by moving to the forefront of improving rather than resisting transparency. For instance, broadcasters in the smaller markets could voluntarily put their files online right away—or they could voluntarily create the database they were suggesting. Or stations could voluntarily stop charging as much as a dollar per page (we’re looking at you, KSNV-TV in Las Vegas) when citizens come in to copy the political files.

Peek Behind the Veil. The current FCC rule did not attempt to provide new rules to “pierce the veil” on Super PACs—i.e. require stations to find out who the biggest donors to the different Super PACs are. But the files do provide investigative reporters with a few new clues. By law, the TV stations are required to get the names of the officers and directors of any groups buying ads. These are supposed to be placed in the “public file,” a companion to the political file, which also must be put online. Public interest groups say that some of the files did not have that information collected.Thus, another task for reporters and citizens: go through the PDFs and track which stations have collected this crucial information and which, in violation of federal law, have not. Then, some group should create a Web page listing the officers and contact information of each group.

Visit Cable Town. The broadcasters argued that it’s unfair to apply the disclosure rules only to them and not cable TV. It did make great sense for the FCC to start with broadcasters—they get most of the money and operate on a free grant of spectrum from the public. But I do agree that cable TV records should be put online too.
Better yet, cable operators could voluntarily provide the information. Perhaps Michael Powell—the former FCC chair and the current head of the cable association—could organize a national effort to proactively advance the cause of transparency. Or perhaps Comcast—the largest cable operator and the owner of NBC news—could decide that, as a matter of corporate policy, it will put online all of its political advertising files, via cable or local broadcast stations.

I don’t have a dog in the cable vs. broadcaster fights, but I sure wouldn’t mind seeing them compete to prove who is better serving the interests of their viewers by championing transparency and the public interest (not to mention their news divisions).

Pay for Play. For me, the biggest disappointment in the FCC’s order was the decision not to implement the recommendation from the Information Needs of Communities report on “pay for play.” (Full disclosure: Until October 2011 I was Senior Advisor to the Chairman of the FCC, and I was lead author of the Information Needs of Communities report, which recommended that the political files be put online.)

The report noted a disturbing trend of local TV stations airing advertiser-crafted content—in the form of video press releases, segments, or whole shows—without adequately disclosing to the viewers that it’s really advertorial. The stations already must disclose this at the end of the broadcast; the Information Needs report recommended that this information be put online as well.

The FCC declined to take that step right now. Journalists and citizens should keep the pressure on. Here’s another opportunity for journalists or the industry itself to take the lead. Why doesn’t the National Association of Broadcasters call on its members to voluntarily put this information online? Why doesn’t the Radio and TV Digital News Directors—which, inexplicably, opposed the FCC’s political transparency rule—take the lead in requesting, or demanding, that their own stations take this important step? Local TV newsrooms forever complain when they’re not taken as seriously as newspaper reporters. In many cases the irritation is justified but in the first round of this fight, it was notable that the TV news directors sided with TV station owners, not with other journalists, and not for the interests of their viewers. Here’s a chance for them to show that they genuinely care about viewers being better informed.

The FCC rule is a hugely important step. But its ultimate significance will depend greatly on how reporters, citizens, and the industry follow up.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Steven Waldman is founder of, co-founder of Beliefnet, and a former newsmagazine journalist.