In January, we covered a proposal to put the 'public files' of television stations online and the broadcaster's objections to the move. A public file, which stations are legally required to keep, contains information about what organizations are buying political ads and how much they've paid for each ad. Brooke speaks with Justin Elliott, reporter at ProPublica about a recent FCC ruling that will require some stations to put the files online.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: John Cassidy says we’re entering four months of mindless election-related chatter, much of which will be driven by political ads, but some hoped that last week’s FCC ruling requiring TV stations to post information about who paid for those ads and how much they paid, could yield some actual insights into the campaigns. A TV station’s public file contains a great deal of salient information about the purchase of political ads, useful for citizens and journalists trying to track how much money campaigns are spending in their area. But until that FCC ruling last week, the requirement to make public files available didn’t extend to posting them online, which meant the public had to physically go to the TV station if they wanted to see the file.
But don’t get too excited yet, says ProPublica reporter Justin Elliott, because the FCC requirement comes with a host of caveats. Justin, welcome to the show.
JUSTIN ELLIOTT: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Because of Citizens United there are all of these Super PACS that can outspend the campaigns, except they don’t have to comply with the same kind of disclosure requirements that the campaigns do. This effort to get the broadcasters to disclose, is that a way of coping with Citizens United?
JUSTIN ELLIOTT: This effort to get these files online predated Citizens United. That said, I think it’s fairly clear that the chairman of the Commission made a push to get these files online in part as a response to Citizens United and the expected tidal wave of money that’s gonna be spent in the campaign. If a Super PAC, say, swoops into some congressional district two days before the election and starts buying advertising, you’ll be able to tell exactly what elections they’re trying to influence.
There’s a lot of focus in the media and a lot of coverage about the large amounts of money that are coming into campaigns. This is really the other side of the equation, where that money is going, whether the stations are fulfilling their obligations to give candidates the lowest ad rates and also to give equal opportunity to competing candidates.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Have stations been caught not following these obligations in the past?
JUSTIN ELLIOTT: They have in the past, yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When we spoke last January to a representative of the National Association of Broadcasters, he said the big problem was that it would impose a burden on local broadcasters, that it cost a lot of money to put that stuff online. As the FCC decision deadline approached, you’ve reported that the broadcasters changed tactics and used a different argument.
JUSTIN ELLIOTT: Their new argument was by publishing these political ad data, they were publishing what are, in effect, their lowest rates because the law is that they have to extend the lowest rates to political candidates, and that would hurt their negotiations with other commercial advertisers. So say, the local car dealership would see that they were charging the Obama campaign 100 dollars for a spot and they would demand a lower rate, as well. Pro-disclosure advocates countered that this data is already public.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So all that lobbying, all that argument couldn’t defeat the passage of this disclosure rule, but the final version isn’t all transparency advocates hoped it would be.
JUSTIN ELLIOTT: It has serious limitations. They opted for a phased-in system under which the only stations that have to come into compliance are the four major affiliates in the top 50 markets, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox. That’s expected to cover about 60 percent of political ad spending this election.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Meaning that crucial swing states wouldn’t have to post this information at all.
JUSTIN ELLIOTT: Some markets in those states. There was an analysis by the Sunlight Foundation looking at where the top 50 broadcast markets are compared to the swing states, and they found that in some markets in Virginia, some markets in Pennsylvania that are expected to see a lot of political advertising, they don’t fall into the top 50. Those political ad files are still gonna be stuck in paper files at the stations until 2014, when all stations around the country have to come into compliance.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what else is wrong with it, besides the fact that it may not cover key areas of the country during the election?
JUSTIN ELLIOTT: The other crucial issue for people who are looking to use this data and analyze it is what format will it be posted in online. The FCC had a working group that was sort of laying the groundwork for this rule, and the working group recommended that this data be put online in a single format that was searchable.
The FCC decided not to require the stations to submit the data in a single format, and I’ve looked at a lot of these files; some of them are hardly readable. It looks like they’ve gone through a fax machine three times before being scanned. That’s gonna be a major barrier to actually analyzing the data on any kind of scale.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So it isn’t gonna be easy, but at least you don’t have to travel to the individual stations and ask for access to their boxes of files. But that is precisely what your group, ProPublica, has asked college students to do in that 40 percent of the marketplace that isn’t covered by the rule yet.
JUSTIN ELLIOTT: Right. We’re asking not just college students but anyone – readers, other journalists - to go to their local stations, ask for the political file, email it to us, and we’re posting it on ProPublica so everyone can see it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: ProPublica’s project is called Free the Files, and we’ll link to that on our web site.
JUSTIN ELLIOTT: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Justin Elliott is a reporter for ProPublica. When we first reported this story we spoke with Jack Goodman, the former general counsel for the National Association of Broadcasters, who told us that putting the files online would be too costly and burdensome for broadcasters. We spoke to him again this week for comment, and he noted that in pointing out the potential harm of making their lowest rates widely known, broadcasters were not abandoning their argument about the cost of posting those files online.
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