We’re working on an project here at the Missouri School of Journalism that we hope will provide insight and spark conversation about the televised political ads running on local stations during the 2012 election season.
To build it, we’re tapping into little-known public information: contracts for TV political advertising. You can’t find the information with an Internet search. You have to hop in your car and visit the business offices of local commercial TV stations and ask employees to pull the information out of filing cabinets.
The Federal Communications Commission requires licensed commercial television stations to keep information about political advertising in their public inspection files, which are supposed to be available during regular business hours. It’s a longstanding rule that predates the Internet.
Late last year, the FCC proposed modernizing those rules. Stations would be required to post the information on the commission’s website, where the public could access it.
The primary source of the political ad-run information on the national front is Campaign Media Analysis Group, which harvests the information from broadcasts electronically. Political campaigns buy CMAG’s services. The Washington Post also purchases data from CMAG for its Mad Money news application looking at campaign ads in the presidential race. The Wesleyan Media Project is using CMAG information to track spending in federal races only. It plans to release summarized data during the 2012 campaign.
Steven Waldman, author of the FCC’s Information Needs of Communities report, mentioned the commission’s proposal during his visit to an Information Needs event in November at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. As an evangelist for easy access to public information, the current setup makes no sense to me.
So I filed comments with the FCC supporting the proposal to put the information online, as did other open government advocates, like the Sunlight Foundation in Washington, D.C. The National Association of Broadcasters, in its comments, cautioned that any new rules should minimize burden on local TV stations.
Meanwhile, we have an election to cover while we await the FCC’s decision.
This election season is a pretty big deal here in Missouri. In addition to the the presidential contest, we have elections for: governor and other statewide offices, U.S. Senate, U.S. House , the state Senate and House of Representatives. Plus, this election will bring new money and voices into the arena, as SuperPACs air ads. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling opened the door for SuperPAC spending. The court said that the First Amendment prohibits federal restrictions on independent spending by corporations and unions in support of or opposition to political candidates.
We already know from filings we’ve collected from our local stations (KMIZ/KQFX, KMOU and KRCG) that conservative American Crossroads is buying ad time. We’ll be able to show you whether Priorities USA, the SuperPAC supporting President Obama becomes a player in the Columbia-Jefferson City TV market.
We’re going to keep building our database. ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative newsroom based in New York, yesterday put out a call for volunteers to collect information about SuperPAC ads at stations across the United States. I’ll tell you how we’re collecting the information here in Columbia in a blog post to come.
Veteran investigative reporter and data journalist. Advocate for open government.
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