FCC’s Plan for Fixing Its Political Ads Transparency Site? It Won’t Say

Justin Elliott
ProPublica / News Analysis
Published: Friday 7 December 2012
Attempts to create a full picture of political ad spending from the TV station files exposed deep flaws in the FCC’s effort as well as spotty compliance by the stations themselves.
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When the Federal Communications Commission passed a rule earlier this year to require TV stations to post political ad buying information online, public interest groups (and ProPublica) welcomed the policy as a means to get an unprecedented look at how billions of campaign dollars flow around the country.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski calledthe rule a victory for transparency, saying the disclosure requirements are “part of the public’s basic contract with broadcasters in exchange for use of the spectrum and other benefits.”

But, in practice, attempts to create a full picture of political ad spending from the TV station files exposed deep flaws in the FCC’s effort as well as spotty compliance by the stations themselves.

“The reviews are abysmal,” says Campaign Legal Center Policy Director Meredith McGehee, who has been tracking the issue closely as a member of the Public Interest Public Airwaves Coalition.  “The information posted has not been as helpful as expected.”

Now, the commission is refusing to even talk about the future of its own transparency initiative.

The key to fulfilling the system’s potential is to require stations to submit political ad data in a consistent format making it actually sortable. Such a requirement would allow for a truly useful database that would show in unprecedented detail how ad money is spent in local, state, and federal campaigns. That wasthe recommendation of an FCC working group last year.

Speaking at a public forum in July, the head of the FCC office overseeing the rule, Bill Lake, called making such improvements the “long-term goal.”

But it’s not at all clear when, or if, that will happen.

We repeatedly asked commission officials about their plans for the site, but our interview requests were denied and FCC spokeswoman Janice Wise declined to comment.

When the Campaign Legal Center’s McGehee proposed to FCC staff during the campaign that the system should move in the direction of “a searchable, sortable, downloadable database … they looked at me like I was a wild-eyed Stalinist,” said McGehee, who still praised the FCC for getting its system up just a few months after finalizing the new regulation.    

The new FCC website is indeed a big improvement over the old system of keeping political ad information in difficult-to-access paper files at stations around the country. ProPublica along with other organizations and media outlets produced dozens of storiesbased on the new information, which shows where campaigns and outside groups bought ads and how much they paid. We had the help of nearly 1,000 volunteers who helped sift through pdf documents in our Free the Files project.

Many stations fell short of the legal requirement to maintain an “orderly” public file. Some stations’ files were plagued by illegible writing, duplicate contracts, opaque revisions, and obscure internal filing practices.

At times stations filed five, ten, even twenty versions of a single contract between a campaign and a TV station to buy a week of ads. That made it nearly impossible to get an accurate picture of overall spending.  

Here’s an example of just how poor the document quality can be.

McGehee now believes that any improvements may be on hold pending the appointment of a replacement for Chairman Julius Genachowksi, a longtime friend of President Obama who is reportedly expected to leave his post once a successor is found.

The other wild card? The position of the broadcast industry and its outstanding lawsuit against the FCC.

Media companies earlier this year mounted an aggressive but unsuccessful lobbying push against  the plan to put political ad data online. After the FCC voted to institute the system, industry trade group the National Association of Broadcasters sued. That lawsuit, in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, was put on hold until early next year while TV stations tried out the new system in the election.

Industry spokesman Dennis Wharton told ProPublica that no final decisions have been made about whether to pursue the suit.

There are some scheduled changes ahead.

The system, which currently covers only the four affiliates of the major networks in the top 50 broadcast markets, will expand to cover all TV stations beginning in July 2014. That will increase the political ad spending reported on the FCC website in the midterm elections. The FCC has promised to seek comment in July 2013 on the impact of the expansion of the system before it goes into effect. 



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