Excerpt of a letter from the deans of 12 American Journalism schools to the FCC in support of the commission’s purposed requirement that television stations put information online about political ad buys for local, state and federal elections.
Background, Part 01: Local and national broadcasters are required to keep files about who is buying political advertising from them. These paper files are available to anyone who cares to go down to their local station and ask for a copy. With this thing called the Internet out there, the FCC thinks it a good idea that stations put these records online. Broadcasters disagree.
Background, Part 02: American airwaves — like its parks — are part of the public commons. The US government gives private companies free licenses to broadcast on these airwaves with the understanding that broadcasters would fulfill certain public service requirements.
Background, Part 03: Disclosure advocates argue that transparently providing information about who’s purchasing political advertising, and providing it in an easily accessible manner — ie, online — is part of that public service requirement.
Background, Part 04: It is estimated that local and national broadcasters will make $3 billion selling political ads this year.
Background, Part 05: Broadcasters such as ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC, along with companies that own local stations, are fighting the regulation, claiming that it places an undue economic burden on their operations. Robert McDowell, a Republican FCC commissioner estimates that it could cost the industry $15 million to scan past documents, and each station somewhere north of $120,000 per year to update and maintain the online files. The National Association of Broadcasters says local stations would have “to hire approximately eight more sales personnel on at least a seasonal basis to handle the increased workload.”
Background, Part 06: Writing at the Columbia Journalism Review, Steve Waldman believes these estimates don’t pass the smell test. Not only is there this neat thing called the Internet through which the data can be published, but there are nifty contraptions called document scanners that can process up to 60 pages a minute. “So even if a station has several thousand pages to scan,” he writes, “it would require one person a few hours, not eight people full time for several months.”
Background, Part 07: When in doubt, claim you’re fighting communism. As many have pointed out, Jerald Fritz, senior vice president of Allbritton Communications, which owns six local ABC affiliates as well as Politico, claims that putting the files online “would ultimately lead to a Soviet-style standardization of the way advertising should be sold as determined by the government.”
Foreground: In the meantime, with files locked away in cabinets but available to anyone willing to pound the pavement, ProPublica has begun working with students at Northwestern’s Medill Journalism School to gather information from five local stations in Chicago. They intend to expand the program as the campaign season continues, and crowdsource the effort among the greater public.