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Broadcasters FaceDIY File-Posting Pressure

Note to broadcasters: 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.

The site has launched an initiative to put TV station political ad file information online, an effort stepped up in the wake of broadcasters balking at a proposal to load that info into an FCC database. The proposal is part of the commission’s attempts to make TV stations’ public files accessible. (Right now, the only way to view the material is to physically walk into a station and ask to see its “public file.”) Stations argue that getting the information online will be expensive, time-consuming and difficult, particularly if they have to update it in real time.

The National Association of Broadcasters has also questioned the FCC’s authority to require online posting of files and argues that the Federal Election Commission has enough information online to satisfy the public’s curiosity about political advertising.

But in this age of Super PAC spending, ProPublica believes more details would be helpful. “We tend to like the idea of public data being online,” ProPublica says in a statement. “Since TV stations won’t put it online themselves, we decided to do it ourselves—and we want your help.” The site is recruiting willing visitors to stations, stating, “You can help expose spending that might otherwise remain hidden in your television market.” An online sign-up sheet is provided for anyone interested in doing their own sleuthing.

With college student help, ProPublica posted political file info from five Chicago network affiliates in advance of the Illinois primary there two weeks ago.

ProPublica’s beef is that Super PACs must report to the FEC only periodically, and those reports do not have to include actual payments to stations and where the ads were bought, nor spending by nonprofits on ads that don’t have to be disclosed.

One silver lining: Station employees who helped gather the info were “friendly and accommodating,” according to the students.

NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton suggested the effort by the site and the students was evidence of why the FCC online mandate was unnecessary. “This is ‘exhibit A’ on why we don’t need bureaucrats doing this. This is the market at work, people going in to view a public file without an expensive government rule that burdens stations.”

Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, which strongly backs the FCC, calls the ProPublica move a “great” one-off, but, she adds, “It’s certainly not a substitute for broadcasters cooperating with what should be a fairly routine administrative procedure.”

She also says at least one of the political campaigns is using an internal media buyer and may not be applying the elbow grease necessary to find out if they are actually being charged the lowest unit rate, which broadcasters are obliged to offer. She calls it a system that can be easily gamed, and adds, “Somebody is not watching it very, very closely.”

ProPublica is trying to recruit eyeballs to that very task, whether or not the FCC weighs in.

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