Election 2014  
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Advertising on Television Rockets, as Super PACs Pour in the Dough: Total Spending $5 Billion

Are owners' profits conflicting with newsrooms' public interest obligations?

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At the biggest stations, reporters in television newsrooms can simply go online and start downloading the latest advertising buys. At the smaller stations not under this electronic FCC umbrella, local TV reporters still have to walk down the hall and ask colleagues in advertising to show them the public file of who is booking and paying for the latest political ads. Some reporters are being told to get lost, as these Ohio student journalists found. But the information is there.

“Some journalists at ABC, NBC, want to see disclosure and who is funding the ads,” said Adam Smith, communications director of Public Campaign, which supports public financing of elections and full disclosure of political spending. “The parent company is opposing the disclosure.”     

Shining a Light on Shadowy Groups

After years of public-interest lobbying, last spring the FCC issued its rule requiring network affiliates in the 50 largest media markets to put the ad-buying information online. It went into effect even though the TV lobby has sued to block it. Anyone can go to the FCC website, type in a station’s name or city, and see which groups are buying ads.

Here’s the FCC’s link to an ABC station in Cincinnati, Ohio, where the Karl Rove’s non-profit, Crossroads Grassroots Political Strategies, has bought dozens of “issue ads” during prime-time hours. The group does not file FEC reports. In another example from this spring, during Wisconsin’s gubernatorial recall election, the Koch brothers’ group, Americans for Prosperity, did not file campaign reports with the state because it claimed all of its ads were "public education," an old loophole in the law. But the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit that collects and analyzes campaign finance reports, worked with a Green Bay newspaper and found information at local TV stations that tied the rightwing group to a big television ad campaign. They also reported who else was investing in that election’s outcome.

An intriguing report by the Columbia Journalism Review noted that some very big local TV ad buys were canceled at the last minute after Republican presidential hopefuls dropped out. There is likely to be similar reshuffling of the swing-state ad buys in coming weeks. This money trail, as much as polling, will reveal what is really going on inside the campaigns and shadowy allied groups. Ad buys reveal which voters are—and are not—being targeted.

The Sunlight Foundation will be trying to track these last-minute changes in ad-buying activity at a new Web site, PoliticalAdSleuth.com. It is hoping that journalists and citizens in swing states—or districts that could tip the balance of who controls the House—will help with crowdsourcing the research. That ability is based on the FCC forms the agency is requiring stations put online. In some cases, stations are uploading their entire ad-buying file; there is no standardization.

These public interest efforts will not stop local TV stations from reaping the windfall Moody’s said is surging in battleground states. But they might enable a few more reporters and local TV newsrooms departments to better inform viewers who is monopolizing the airwaves.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).