TV broadcasters use the public airwaves for free in exchange for a commitment to serve and inform their communities. If you want to know what your local broadcasters are doing to meet those obligations, the best place to look is their public files.
And the political files broadcasters are required to maintain include essential information about who is buying political ads and how much they are paying.
Until recently, both the public and political files were available only in paper form at local TV stations. But in April 2012, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that television stations must put the information in their public and political files online. Free Press had advocated for such a change for the better part of a decade.
The FCC’s decision is a major victory for anyone hoping to study broadcasters’ commitment to the public interest and shed light on the shadowy third-party groups and Super PACs inundating our airwaves with misleading political ads.
All public files went online in 2012. But only the major-network stations in the country’s largest media markets were required to post their political files online that same year (all other stations can delay posting until 2014). That leaves millions of American voters with no easy way to access information about the political ads clogging our airwaves this election cycle.
To fill the gap, Free Press has partnered with the Sunlight Foundation and the New America Foundation to enlist volunteers across the country to inspect files at the TV stations the FCC order exempts.