Gaping holes, confusion mar FCC’s data on political ad buys

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[Commentary] Four years after it began requiring TV stations to upload their records of political ad sales to a central government website, the Federal Communications Commission maintains a recordkeeping system that makes finding out who an ad’s sponsor is feel like a treasure hunt. In 2012, the FCC approved a rule requiring broadcast stations in the largest markets to upload the files showing who bought time for political ads, how much they paid and other details, saving journalists and others from having to visit to individual TV stations to get the info. The directive was gradually expanded and now includes most broadcast, cable, satellite and radio outlets. But the victory for open government turned out to be a website that is searchable only by station call letters, channel number, facility ID number and similar data — not by sponsoring group, candidate mentioned and other terms that would make it easier to track who is running ads in particular federal races, and how much they’re spending.

The current filing system is “pretty useless” for the public, said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, which put out a report on the system’s shortcomings. The political ad purchase records, also known as political files, were basically an unorganized pile of mostly non-machine readable documents with no uniform filing system. Earlier in Sept, the Center for Responsive Politics launched an ad data tracking tool searchable by state and zip code (and soon, by other terms) to continue efforts started by watchdog groups and news outlets such as Sunlight Foundation and ProPublica when the data first came out. But the federal agency responsible for the data still maintains only a vague “due diligence” standard when it comes to stations’ responsibility for ensuring the forms contain complete and accurate information.

[Soo Rin Kim is a reporting intern with the Center for Responsive Politics]
[The Benton Foundation filed complaints recently against several broadcasers on this issue.]


Gaping holes, confusion mar FCC’s data on political ad buys