Broadcasters Face DIY File-Posting PressureProPublica schools stations in ad info accessibility 4/02/2012 12:01:00 AM Eastern
Note to broadcasters: Don’t be surprised if
some college-age kids come to your station demanding
to see your political advertising files.
If that happens—as it did recently at some
Chicago network affiliates—feel free to blame
the folks at nonprofit news site ProPublica.
The site has launched an initiative to put TV
station political ad file information online, an
effort stepped up in the wake of broadcasters
balking at a proposal to load that info into an
FCC database. The proposal is part of the commission’s
attempts to make TV stations’ public
files accessible. (Right now, the only way to view
the material is to physically walk into a station
and ask to see its “public file.”) Stations argue
that getting the information online will be expensive,
time-consuming and difficult, particularly
if they have to update it in real time.
The National Association of Broadcasters has also questioned
the FCC’s authority to require online posting of files and argues
that the Federal Election Commission has enough information
online to satisfy the public’s curiosity about political advertising.
But in this age of Super PAC spending, ProPublica believes
more details would be helpful. “We tend to like the idea of
public data being online,” ProPublica says in a statement. “Since
TV stations won’t put it online themselves, we decided to do it
ourselves—and we want your help.” The site is recruiting willing
visitors to stations, stating, “You can help expose spending
that might otherwise remain hidden in your television market.”
An online sign-up sheet is provided for anyone interested in
doing their own sleuthing.
With college student help, ProPublica posted political file
info from five Chicago network affiliates in advance of the Illinois
primary there two weeks ago.
ProPublica’s beef is that Super PACs must
report to the FEC only periodically, and those
reports do not have to include actual payments
to stations and where the ads were bought, nor
spending by nonprofits on ads that don’t have
to be disclosed.
One silver lining: Station employees who
helped gather the info were “friendly and accommodating,”
according to the students.
NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton suggested
the effort by the site and the students was evidence
of why the FCC online mandate was unnecessary.
“This is ‘exhibit A’ on why we don’t
need bureaucrats doing this. This is the market
at work, people going in to view a public file
without an expensive government rule that burdens stations.”
Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal
Center, which strongly backs the FCC, calls the ProPublica
move a “great” one-off, but, she adds, “It’s certainly not a substitute
for broadcasters cooperating with what should be a fairly
routine administrative procedure.”
She also says at least one of the political campaigns is using
an internal media buyer and may not be applying the elbow
grease necessary to find out if they are actually being charged
the lowest unit rate, which broadcasters are obliged to offer. She
calls it a system that can be easily gamed, and adds, “Somebody
is not watching it very, very closely.”
ProPublica is trying to recruit eyeballs to that very task,
whether or not the FCC weighs in.