FCC mulls greater transparency on spending tallies while hurdles hamper local access to station files

When the FCC takes up a proposal on Friday to require that broadcasters post valuable data on the Web about political ad purchases, it will be a step to counter a campaign finance system gone wild.

Putting the data on the FCC’s website would, in the eyes of public interest groups and campaign finance reformers, shed light on where exactly the hundreds of millions of dollars of expected spending is going in this year’s presidential contest.The information, detailing not just campaign ad buys but rates, is already available to the public, but broadcasters typically require that anyone who wishes to view the records come to the station in person. To many the requirement seems anachronistic in the digital age and underscores the difference between ease of access online and on-site hassle.

Variety recently dispatched reporters to view the ad-spending records at major Los Angeles O&Os, and the experiences revealed a gamut of differences in how individual stations handle such requests.

At KABC-TV, files were made available, but under the supervision of a public affairs staffer. Notes could be taken, but copies or photos could not be made.

At KNBC-TV, located on the Peacock network’s Burbank lot, a confused guard at one of the gates sent a reporter to another gate, which could not be found. The reporter finally called the main number for the station before being transferred to the newsroom, where an editor finally steered her in the right direction, to a woman who could offer access to the file.

When another reporter dropped in at Univision KMEX-TV, a security guard called a community relations representative, who responded within five minutes, took the reporter to a room with access to files and said that the station would make copies of up to 20 pages, such as detailed records of the tens of thousands of dollars in ad time that California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman purchased in the weeks before the 2010 election.

Beyond that, the KMEX rep said, the material would be available for pickup or mailing the next day. And although the rep asked who the reporter was and where he was from, she made clear that he did not have to tell her.

The situation was far different at Fox affiliate KTTV. The reporter was told by a receptionist that the public files were available for viewing during business hours but that the reporter could simply come by the station. When he arrived, a security guard asked for his ID, copied down his information and then made a call.

The result: The guard said the reporter would need to make an appointment.

The Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002 included a provision requiring stations to make records available to the public of ad purchases by candidates or other entities, such as groups advocating a legislative issue. It does not spell out exactly how the records have to be made available.

The FCC is pushing broadcasters for the change — viewing it as common sense in the digital age — but stations are resisting.

The current proposal would require ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox stations in the top 50 markets to post the data on the FCC’s website, with smaller stations allowed to phase in the change over a period of two years.

Broadcasters have been pushing for a compromise in which a campaign’s total ad buy would be posted but not the particular rates.

They see the latter as proprietary competitive data, and although it is public, “There is an extraordinary difference, however, between making this commercially sensitive business information available upon request at a station’s studio and publishing it for all to see on the Internet,” Maureen O’Connell, senior VP of regulatory and government affairs for News Corp., wrote in a letter to the FCC, adding that the online rate information would create a risk of “commercial harm.”

She argues that the public’s interest is in the amount of money that candidates are spending, not per-unit rate information. The information would be not just from individual candidates but the independent expenditure groups and SuperPACs already having a big impact on the election.

“The public would receive great value from being able to view summary information online, including the total amount of an advertising buy and the total amount of money a candidate has spent on ads during a particular election window,” she wrote.

All of the other broadcast networks and Univision, as well as the National Assn. of Broadcasters, are pushing for the compromise plan as well.

But public interest advocates say that only posting totals would fall short of the goal of greater transparency. One rationale behind the disclosure of rate information is so campaigns can be assured that stations are charging them the lowest unit rate, as required by law.

Andrew Jay Schwartzman, most recently of public interest group the Media Access Project, said in his own letter that “aggregated information is of far less value to journalists and the public because it makes it far harder to conduct effective analyses of the impact of campaign expenditures on the political process.”

Schwartzman added that when it comes to broadcaster arguments that easier access to specific rate info will cause commercial harm, “If there were a meaningful strategic benefit to advertisers from access to this information, they would have been seeking access to it for many years.”

All of the interest in the rule change has triggered the attention of ProPublica, the investigative reporting non-profit org. The group announced an effort to gather the data themselves and post it online.

In other words, for stations, the digital age is here, whether they like it or not.

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