For the first time last year, the Federal Communications Commission began requiring certain TV stations to post political ad buy contracts online. Yet an apparent snafu at a Florida station that kept all buys made in the final month of the election offline until earlier this month raises questions about just how well that system is working.
Since the start of the TV age, stations have been required to keep a paper file of which political groups pay for advertising. Those documents, which today are sometimes the only paper trail left by shadowy political operators, are incredibly hard to gather. So advocates cheered half-heartedly when the FCC asked ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX affiliates in the top 50 media markets to scan these documents into a web site beginning last August. The resulting system — thousands of scanned-in PDF files — was essentially useless for analysis, but still a unique source of information that journalists did use to track ads and identify some of the players behind them.
On Aug. 2 last year, the approximately 230 stations mandated to put their ad documents online began doing so. Like most Florida TV stations, WWSB, an ABC affiliate in Sarasota, was slammed with political ads.
No one at the Federal Communications Commission complained when WWSB failed to post any political files between Aug. 2 and Sept. 27, when dozens of files were posted. After Sept. 27, no more political files were posted again until Jan. 8, when 465 more political files went up. Some of the files dated back as far as 2010, but they also included, in theory, every ad purchase made during October in a key market of a battleground state.
So what happened?
Tonya Freeman, who works as an accounts receivable/administrative assistant at WWSB and spent hours scanning in the ad buy documents, first noticed the problem when she went to the public site last week. "I almost basically threw up," she said, concerned that the documents had vanished. "I wanted to go off the roof."
It turns out the documents she'd uploaded and renamed over the last five months were still in an FCC dropbox account, they just hadn't been moved onto the site. And so on Jan. 8, "I moved them from the dropbox to the FCC site," she said.
Freeman said she wasn't clear if she was supposed to be moving the files over all along, but said that the original training on how to use the site, held over a webinar last summer, was hard to follow. "I just wish there was a number I could call," she added.
The FCC's press office wouldn't return phone calls or answer emailed questions about what had happened with WWSB's files.
The order to post the files online, adopted last April 27, essentially treats the FCC's web site as another place for the paper files to be kept. The bureaucratic ruling says that stations "shall" place the files online, but doesn't specify any consequences for failing to post them.
Angela Campbell, a law professor at Georgetown who represents the Public Interest Public Airwaves Coalition, said she's not surprised there have been problems. (Sunlight partnered with The Free Press, a member of the coalition, which has fought to make the files available online, to build Political Ad Sleuth, which makes the FCC database more searchable and enhances it with files uploaded from stations not covered by the FCC order)
"I have no confidence right now in the FCC's data collection posting prowess, to say the least," said Campbell. Nor does the agency have a built-in incentive to check the data. "The FCC itself isn't really doing anything with this information. They're not analysing it," she said.
The FCC has had problems with public data collected in the past, Campbell said. A 2008 Government Accountability Office report found the agency had trouble collecting data on the gender, race, and ethnicity of radio and television station owners. That report found many stations were exempted from filing reports and said the FCC had "inadequate data quality procedures" and "problematic data storage and retrieval."
Campbell said FCC oversight of stations' public data collection was minimal. "Normally, that doesn't happen except at license renewal time and the license renewal terms are like 8 years," she said. Fines are possible, she added, but "the fines really aren't that large."
Instead, the FCC "tend[s] to rely on complaints, and I don't know that this is something that your average person is going to complain about," Campbell said.