Insisting on Transparency—Even from the Media
Federal Communications Commission rules have long required television stations to keep paper logs of all political advertisements and open them for public inspection. But this process has been cumbersome and — in our digital world — outdated, with minimal transparency for the $3 billion in election-year TV ad spending the result. Beginning in March 2012, ProPublica helped lead the charge in pointing out the weaknesses in the current system, including the steadfast refusal of TV stations to post the logs online.
And we went further, mounting our “Free the Files” project to use crowdsourcing among both individuals and other news organizations to gather and post the logs ourselves. As our headline put it, “If TV Stations Won’t Post Their Data on Political Ads, We Will.” By the end of April, more than 300 individuals had volunteered to help assemble the information from their local stations, and we had partnered with eight other news organizations in this effort. The reach of that group covered more than 80 television markets in 43 states and the District of Columbia.
Bloomberg View called it “DIY Campaign Finance Reform, With Help from ProPublica.” Deadline Hollywood wrote that, “You have to hand it to ProPublica for coming up with a creative work-around to one of the weirdest disputes at the FCC.” Bill Moyers’s television commentary opposing continued secrecy noted our work in the area. Industry bible Broadcasting and Cable began a report this way: “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.”
Insisting on Transparency — Even from the Media
Our coverage continued, particularly in calling out the fact that the companies opposing transparency in this case own many of the country’s leading news organizations.
On April 27, the FCC finally voted on a rule change. Editorials urging the change in that morning’s New York Times and Seattle Times both cited our coverage. The rule change passed, mandating greater disclosure by the leading stations in the nation’s 50 largest markets, although the online reporting will not be searchable, and exempts about 40 percent of the nation’s political broadcast television advertising. ProPublica continues to point out the need for greater transparency in this area critical to our democracy.
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