Inspecting Local TV’s “Public Inspection Files”

CJR explores the filing cabinets in five states

Regular readers may recall that a few months ago, CJR published a pair of columns by Steven Waldman—the lead author of the Federal Communications Commission report “Information Needs of Communities”—that took local TV stations to task. At issue was a proposed FCC rule that would require stations to post their “public inspection files”—including information on political ad buys, now kept largely in filing cabinets at station offices—on the Internet.

The files contain a range of information that the government requires stations to track in exchange for access to the public airwaves. But Waldman focused on one data set:

One of the most interesting components of the file: broadcasters are required to keep a log of the political advertising that airs on their channel. This is a potential gold mine of information about who is spending what. The requirement applies to all races—national, state, and local—and issue ads, and must be posted rapidly (usually within forty-eight hours). Stations also must maintain a list of the executives or members of the board of directors of the groups buying the ads.

There are other ways to get much of this information—campaigns and super PACs are often eager to talk about their ad buys, and private companies will happily collect the data and sell it to you. The Federal Election Commission also publishes online the expenditures reported by campaigns, PACs, and associated committees, after the organizations report the data, which is often monthly or quarterly.

But the private data isn’t cheap, and the campaigns’ public comments aren’t comprehensive. And the FEC’s rules on reporting are convoluted and online search is tricky. Further, information about ad buys at specific media outlets is not required; often, only advertising agencies are listed as recipients of campaign money. And while in some cases the FEC publishes data online swiftly, the TV stations themselves are the only entity with a legal obligation to routinely make this information available to the public quickly.

Interestingly, in their ongoing efforts to oppose the new rule, representatives from the major networks have also focused on the political ad file. Making it truly accessible, they argued in a formal comment filed (PDF) with the FCC, would give political ad buyers and rival stations too much information about the ad market, thus putting stations at a competitive disadvantage. And so, from their perspective, making it hard for the public to get public records is actually a feature, not a bug:

Of course, stations’ public files are just that—public—and all of this information could be obtained by determined commercial clients and competitors by making a visit to a station’s studio. But it is one thing to travel to a station’s office across town during a hectic business day—a trip that would have to be frequently repeated to keep current with rapidly changing market conditions—and quite another to have the desired information instantly available without leaving one’s desk.

Of course, it’s not only “commercial clients and competitors” who might have interest in information about political ad expenditures; journalists, watchdog groups, and engaged citizens do as well. So we asked five of the correspondents from our Swing States Project—specifically, those based in Charlotte, Denver, Detroit, Las Vegas, and West Palm Beach, Fla.—to make that hectic mid-day trip, ask for access to the records at a couple of their local stations, and tell us about the experience and what they found.

(ProPublica has just undertaken a similar effort. And the New America Foundation has a running project that encompasses other parts of the public files, which you can read about here.)

Here’s what we learned:

The records are accessible. A low bar, obviously, but it’s worth pointing out. All of our correspondents were able to see the files, and none had to wait more than about 10 minutes or speak to more than two people in the process of finding someone who could help them.

We did encounter one access-related hiccup: on a second visit to KUSA in Denver, our Colorado correspondent Mary Winter asked for copies of the actual checks and contracts in the file for the American Wind Energy Association, one of the few political advertisers on the station in 2012. (KUSA charges 10 cents a page for copies; some other stations charge $1). The associate sales supervisor said she’d never fielded such a request and needed to ask her bosses for permission. It was late in the day, and that extra step necessitated another trip the next day. (The copies were eventually provided.)

Another note on access: At all but one of the stations our correspondents visited, they were asked to sign a visitors’ log noting their name, contact information, and affiliation. At WBPF in Palm Beach Gardens, our Florida correspondent, Brian Crowley, reports that he was also asked to fill in “why I want the records.” This was an exception. By contrast, at Fox affiliate WJBK in Detroit, Anna Clark, our Michigan correspondent, found in the log-in book a memo to employees reminding them they can not ask anyone for the purpose of a Public Inspection File inspection.

But they don’t seem to be accessed very often. A visitors’ log at WJBK, the Fox station in Detroit, showed 17 other visitors to see the public file over the prior year. (They included a Detroit News reporter, a representative from the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, and, yes, an employee of a rival station.)

If anecdotal experiences at other station visits are any guide, that may be a relatively high number. Representatives from stations in Charlotte said they do get periodic visits, typically from campaign staff checking on rivals. But a security guard at Denver’s KUSA recalled one other access request, about six months earlier. And a traffic manager at KTUD in Las Vegas said inquiries come along “not very often.”

The infrequent requests for access may explain station staff’s spotty ability, or willingness, to answer questions and help visitors understand the documents. Some correspondents reported helpful staff, especially at larger stations. Other exchanges were like the one with the brusque employee at Fox31 in Denver, who said, in reply to a simple question, “In seven years here I have never had anyone ask me that.”

The small number of requests might be evidence, as the broadcasters would likely suggest, of a lack of interest. Alternatively, they might be a sign that the headaches involved—trekking to station offices, dealing with on-site security, searching through file cabinets—are enough to induce motivated reporters and citizens to find work-arounds (and to deter entirely the less-motivated).

And then there are the headaches that come after gaining access to these files. The FCC’s requirements for the political ad files are the same for all stations and states (see Section 315 (e) for a full listing of the requirements, but, generally, the files are to include all political ad purchase requests, details about all ads aired including date, price and name of candidate to which ads refer, and contact details for and about purchaser of ads).

But what our correspondents found in visits to local stations was hardly uniform. In general, in reviewing these files our correspondents were able to:

Identify some salient facts about political advertising. Again, a low bar, but there are some ad sales numbers to be had in these files—numbers which, anecdotally, appear to be updated in a timely manner.

For example, in reviewing files at WBPF in Palm Beach Gardens, our Florida correspondent Brian Crowley found the following:

Poring over the [six-inch-thick] binder, the most notable thing is that a good four of those six inches is occupied by Romney’s campaign, which spent nearly $85,000 on this station in the four weeks leading up to the January 31 Florida primary. The campaign’s 110 spots included time on ABC’s food and style program, The Chew.
From a perusal of the files at KTUD in Las Vegas, for another example, Jay Jones, our Nevada correspondent, determined that 2011 was a slow year on the station—the largest buy was from the US Chamber of Commerce, for $1742.50. And among the bits of information Andria Krewson, our North Carolina correspondent, found in WBTV’s files in Charlotte: for January and early February, before the South Carolina GOP primary, Obama 4 America spent more on ad buys ($67,770) than did the Mitt Romney campaign ($31,855).
Also at WBTV, Krewson discovered that Robert Pittenger, running for US House District 9, was the only local candidate as of March 9 with his own file (showing he had spent $42,805 for ads scheduled to run through March 11). “Beware the data,” Krewson added. “His name is spelled ‘Pettenger’ in one file reference.”

Which leads us to our next takeaway:

There’s real variability from station to station in both the presentation and comprehensiveness of files. FCC requirements are the same across the nation, but the files themselves aren’t. Our correspondents reported that some appeared incomplete, some were disorganized, and some contained a surprising bounty of information.

On February 22, our Nevada correspondent, Jay Jones, visited NBC affiliate KSNV (owned by Intermountain West media mogul Jim Rogers) in Las Vegas. In the station’s 2012 political files, Jones found notes—for each flight of ads purchased—indicating how much the advertiser spent at KSNV as well as the total spend for the entire market, including a breakdown by each station. KSNV’s breakdown noted that at KTUD, a smaller station owned by Greenspun Media Group, $0 was spent—something Jones already knew from a trip earlier that day to KTUD, which turned up no 2012 political ad file at all.

From KSNV’s records on market-wide ad spending, Jones was able to see, for example, that in the run-up to Nevada’s February 4 caucuses, Restore Our Future (the pro-Mitt Romney super PAC) spent $24,795 at KSNV out of market total of $88,553. Mitt Romney for President bought two ad flights at KSNV, for airing between January 22 and February 4, totaling $39,750, while market-wide these two flights cost the Romney campaign $220,833.

KSNV’s records on market-wide ad buys were not unprecedented, but neither were they the norm. Our North Carolina correspondent came across similar data at WBTV in Charlotte, as did our Florida correspondent during a visit to WBPF. By contrast, this is how our Colorado correspondent, Mary Winter, described the files at KUSA, the dominant station in Denver:

Files look like something out of the 1980’s-’90s, not something an executive assistant would point to with pride. And much smaller than I expected.
In Detroit, our Michigan correspondent, Anna Clark, found notable differences in the content and presentation of files at WXYZ and WJBK. The files at Fox affiliate WJBK (but not WXYZ) included, for example, a clearance form summarizing each ad’s contents and clarifying, for example, that the Red White and Blue Fund had issued a “pro-Santorum” ad and that the 60 Plus Association ran “anti-Obamacare” ads targeting Sen. Debbie Stabenow. Also at WJBK (and not WXYZ), Clark reported:

Every folder had stapled into it the station’s “political disclosure” guidelines. Most folders included emails, mostly about the payment tracking process. [And m]ost folders included order worksheets that fairly clearly indicated the times that ads aired.
And even at stations where the files were rich with data, there sometimes appeared to be information missing. For ad buys that come from third parties, such as the 501(c)(4) group the American Future Fund, the FCC requires that stations list “the name of the person purchasing the time, the name, address, and phone number of a contact person for such person, and a list of the chief executive officers or members of the executive committee or of the board of directors of such person.” Our North Carolina correspondent, Andria Krewson, reviewed the AFF files at WSOC and WBTV in Charlotte stations, and didn’t find that full list of names in either. (In Detroit, too, neither WJBK nor WXYZ included this information in their files.)

More from Krewson in Charlotte, underscoring the variability in—and challenges in reading—these files:

The WSOC records showed the American Future Fund also as “ISS/Iowa 4 Responsible Gov’t.” One form, provided by the National Association of Broadcasters, states that the funding was provided by the American Future Fund, a corporation, and is signed in what appears to be computerized cursive by Sandy Greiner, with a phone number listed. Greiner is president of the board of American Future Fund and an Iowa state senator. I could not easily read her signature but Googled “Sandy” and “American Future Fund” to figure out the cursive. The WBTV files do not contain a similar document, but include an invoice showing payment from Mentzer Media Services, paid through “telerep-Philade.”

Given the variability in these files, a push for standardization would be welcome; such a move could make it easier for reporters and members of the public to find relevant information, compare data between different stations, and identify incomplete files.

With or without standardization, though, this material should be online. Some of these files were more of a “gold mine of information” than others, but all contained salient facts about how politicians and their allies are spreading their messages across the public airwaves. Those facts belong to the public—and they ought to be moved from the filing cabinets on to the Internet.

This story was written by staff writers Liz Cox Barrett and Greg Marx, with reporting by correspondents Mary Winter, Brian Crowley, Anna Clark, Andria Krewson, and Jay Jones.

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.