In an important victory for transparency advocates, the Federal Communications Commission recently began requiring broadcasters to post the files of political ad buys online. The new system, which went into effect on Aug. 2, meant that public records of campaign ads would for the first time be available in the same place, bringing fresh hope that murky expenditures on political TV ads could be subjected to real scrutiny.

But on Thursday, a laurel-worthy story by Jake Harper of the Sunlight Foundation’s Reporting Group revealed something striking about the new program. Less than three months after the disclosure requirement was put in place, large numbers of documents have already been removed from the FCC database:

An analysis using Sunlight’s Political Ad Sleuth, a project to organize and expand the FCC database, shows that of the more than 220 stations that are required to post their political files online, more than half have removed documents since the process began Aug. 2. More than 2,100 of the total 35,400 records appear to have been taken down.

It is not entirely clear why the FCC documents in question were removed. (As Harper’s story notes, about three-quarters of the files in question remain available on Document Cloud thanks to ProPublica, and Sunlight has now begun backing up FCC filings.) The broadcast stations that Sunlight Foundation contacted for its story emphasized their confusion about which documents they were supposed to post, and the potential for human error in the large-scale enterprise of posting political files online. Removal of documents that were posted in error would be consistent with FCC rules.

In a statement to CJR Friday, the FCC described another situation that in which files might be removed: “If a final agreement is changed before ads are aired, a station can replace the outdated agreement with the updated agreement, which ensures that the public file reflects the most up-to-date information about time purchased.” (See the full statement at the bottom of this post.)

Harper’s story addresses that possibility, while noting inconsistent practice across the industry:

With paper files, it was common practice to include original ad agreements along with any revisions; online, many stations are constantly deleting old agreements and replacing them with newer versions, keeping the public in the dark on the changes. Updates to ad files can show that, while the same amount may be spent, the commercial times change, perhaps to target a different demographic. In other cases, they may show increased or decreased spending, demonstrating a significant shift in strategy from the campaign or spending group.

Other stations choose to upload a revised order form, allowing for easier tracking of the numbers.

Even if the stations that have removed files are all in compliance with the new FCC rules, Harper and Sunlight have performed an important service here. One of the ultimate journalistic goals for the ad buy information—not yet achievable, owing to the form in which the files are posted—is serious number-crunching that will offer a clearer picture of how campaigns target different swathes of the electorate. In order to do that, journalists will need confidence in the reliability of the data. If the data is subject to change, we need to know that. And if there’s data that’s available from some stations and hidden at others, we need to know that too.

This isn’t the first time that the Sunlight Foundation’s practice of sharing data and translating it into useful forms has helped expose inconsistencies in the information. Last month, CJR wrote a pair of stories about how the different sources used by the media to track political ad spending—the Federal Election Commission and the private research firms Kantar Media and SMG Delta—provided strikingly different totals due to broad discrepancies in methodology. Our analysis was made possible by the user-friendly data posted by the Sunlight Foundation.

Ironically, the inconsistencies in the ad trackers’ totals underscore how obscure TV ad disclosure has remained—and thus the urgent need for the more reliable figures promised by the FCC’s new system.

But it seems now that this resource is in need of closer attention too. We’re glad that the Sunlight Foundation is on the case.

*****

Full statement from the FCC:

“Since its adoption, the FCC’s online public inspection file rules have harnessed the power of digital technologies to make public information more accessible to the public. For the first time ever, the common sense update moves paper files online that were previously only available at TV stations. Broadcasters must maintain orderly public inspection files and the FCC will enforce penalties for non-compliance. As part of our rules, the files must include all requests for time, and the final agreements relating to those requests, for a period of two years. If a final agreement is changed before ads are aired, a station can replace the outdated agreement with the updated agreement, which ensures that the public file reflects the most up-to-date information about time purchased.”

 

Sasha Chavkin covers political money and influence for CJR's United States Project, our politics and policy desk. He has written for ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, and The New York World. Follow him on Twitter @sashachavkin.