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Free the Files Volunteers Unlock $160 Million in Ad Buys in First Week

In the seven days since werebooted Free The Files, nearly 350 people have “freed” a political ad contract from the Federal Communications Commission database, unlocking more than $160 million in ad spending by 325 groups in more than 30 swing markets.

In the seven days since we rebooted Free The Files, nearly 350 people have “freed” a political ad contract from the Federal Communications Commission database, unlocking more than $160 million in ad spending by 325 groups in more than 30 swing markets.

Our top contributor alone has freed an astounding 1,300 files. What is becoming of all this ad data? A look at what we’ve learned in the last week:

Dark money groups in New Mexico: ProPublica’s Kim Barker and Justin Elliott dug through TV station files from Albuquerque, N.M., and found that in August dark money groups outspent campaigns in the U.S. senate race there. These social welfare nonprofits, which don’t have to disclose their donors, bought about 56 percent of the ads on the Republican side and 47 percent of the ads on the Democratic side.

Remember Ohio’s Government Integrity Fund? This group, which Justin Elliott started investigating after seeing it in TV station files, has spent more than $1 million on ads in Ohio’s U.S. Senate contest. It turns out that the group explicitly said it would not spend money on elections when it applied for tax-exempt status last December.

Spending leans Republican in Asheville, N.C.: The Carolina Public Press reviewed FCC files for ABC affiliate WLOS in Asheville, N.C., to find 66 percent of all station ads back Republican campaigns.

What we’re missing: The Sunlight Foundation and the Wesleyan Media Project note that the political ad files published online by the FCC don’t account for a significant number of political ads in swing markets (under the rule, only stations in the top 50 markets are required to post ad documents online). People who are willing and able to visit television stations in those markets can sign up with their Political Ad Sleuthproject.

Civil Beat frees the files in Hawaii: In another market not covered by the FCC’s new online publishing rule, Honolulu Civil Beat is visiting stations each week and has tracked a total of $9.6 million in political ad buys, with at least 40 percent of it coming from non-candidate political committees.

The documents are online, but they’re rough – As our volunteers quickly discovered, the FCC’s political ad files are tough to interpret. Though the commission requires stations to maintain an “orderly” file, many of the documents are filed sideways, upside down or at low resolutions. The files include a mix of agreement forms, invoices and actual contracts – sometimes revisions of previous orders – making it difficult to determine actual spending. The FCC doesn’t require stations to report the data in a standard, machine-readable format (though it has said such standardization is a “long-term” goal).  

Free the Files volunteer Joy Piazza, Ph.D., and Columbia Journalism Review's Sasha Chavkin join ProPublica's Justin Elliott and Amanda Zamora for a Google Plus discussion of the Free the Files project:


Thanks to all who have volunteered to review files thus far -- with your help, we’ve freed more than 2,500 files in our first week. To show our thanks (and liven our leaderboard), we’re offering Free The Files T-shirts to the top 10 contributors on our leaderboard as of 12 a.m. EST Nov. 7. You will need to provide your name and mailing address in order to receive a shirt. So pick a market and free those files!

We are also looking for market “captains” to spearhead document review and analyze files by market. If you are interested in reporting in a particular area, please contact us at [email protected] for details on adopting a market.


Are you reporting on political ad spending found in TV station files? Sign up for our Free the Files Twitter list.

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