With the 2012 election three months away, stations in some of the nation's biggest television markets will start uploading information on political ad buys to the Internet for the first time today, bringing out of the dark ages at least some information on who's behind political ads.
The move represents a major victory for open government groups that have been fighting for more than a decade to get the information contained in television filing cabinets on the Internet, but it does come with considerable limitations. The Sunlight Foundation, along with the Free Press and other partners, is seeking help to overcome them so that we can provide fuller disclosure on who is trying to influence your vote before you cast it.
The need is particularly urgent this year because of changes in campaign finance laws that have facilitated millions in political spending by outside groups. Many of them not required to disclose donors and, in some cases, not required to register with the Federal Election Commission or even, depending on the timing and nature of the spending, to disclose the fact that they are making political expenditures. More about how to help below.
Limitations of the FCC rule
The Federal Communications Commission rule requiring the online disclosures, approved in April over fierce opposition from the nation's broadcasters, only applies to stations affiliated with four major networks -- ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC -- in the top 50 television markets. But some of the biggest markets, like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, are in states unlikely to see a lot of political spending, while many markets in political battleground states remain unaffected by the FCC order. Zoom in on the map below for details.
Red shows TV markets left out if the FCC orders stations in the top 50 to post political ad buys. For a closer view, zoom in; for more information, click on an area.
Even for stations covered by the rule, ad buys made prior to Thursday don't have to be posted online, meaning that records of millions of dollars already spent, much of it by groups do not disclose donors, will still be gathering dust in station file cabinets. And stations outside the scope of the FCC order -- those not affiliated with the four major networks (including Spanish-language stations) and those not in the 50 top broadcast markets -- don't have to begin posting their public files online for another two years.
In addition, the files that the FCC does post this year will be in PDF format. That means users seeking to track the spending of particular interest groups or campaigns potentially will have to sift through hundreds of files.
William Lake, the chief of the FCC's media bureau, called putting the files in machine-readable format -- which would enable easy searching, sorting and downloading -- a "long-term goal." For now, the agency would rely on third parties to "actively develop ways, including crowdsearching, to make documents more searchable."
How you can help
That's why the Sunlight Foundation and its partners have launched Political Ad Sleuth. The goal is to create an easy-to-use, searchable and sortable online database on political TV ad buys -- both those posted by the FCC and those that are not. We are seeking volunteers -- journalists, citizen journalists and interested citizens -- to help with this project. More information on how to help and access training is available on our site.
Asked about the many limitations of the new rule, FCC spokesperson Janice Wise described it as a "big step" towards making political ad information more widely available. All stations will be required to begin posting public files online by July, 2014 if the FCC requirement passes a federal review process -- and survives a lawsuit filed by the National Association of Broadcasters. A panel of federal appellate judges last week rejected the NAB's request for an emergency stay of the FCC order, which would have blocked online disclosure of political ad information prior to this year's election.
The FCC has demonstrated the online portal for the broadcasters in recent weeks. The online system allows stations to simply drag and drop files onto the FCC's web portal, or upload them via file-sharing programs such as DropBox. "We're working hard to comply," said Julie Hoover, a New York-based spokeswoman for ABC-owned stations. At one presentation, the chief of the FCC's media bureau William Lake said, “We fully expect that the TV stations will find it easier, not harder, to use the new online filing system.”
The FCC's online portal can be viewed here.
This post has been corrected from the original to reflect that stations do not have to upload the political file from the past six months. TV stations have six months to upload its public file from the past six months but the political file (which is part of the public file) is exempted from that rule.