Public and Political File Inspections

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.

Blog Posts

  • Shedding New Light on Dark Money

    July 1, 2014
    Letting the FCC do its job means advancing the public's right to know at a time when political ad spending has run amok. Let the sun shine in.
  • What Ted Cruz Doesn't Want You to Know

    October 28, 2013
    By now it seems pretty clear that Sen. Ted Cruz has a plan to occupy the White House. But he doesn’t want people to know too much about it.
  • Don't Believe the Spin. Dark Money Won.

    November 20, 2012

    Before Nov. 6 is written into history, we need to challenge assumptions now circulating among Washington’s pundit class.

    First, the Obama victory didn’t signal the demise of big-money politics. It didn’t spell the end of the Super PAC. And the election wasn’t a train wreck for political advertising — even after groups paid billions for spots in support of losing candidates.

More »

Press Releases

  • Senate Confirms New FCC Chairman

    October 29, 2013
    WASHINGTON -- Late Tuesday, the Senate unanimously confirmed Tom Wheeler as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Michael O'Rielly was also confirmed as a commissioner.
  • Free Press Report Examines the Absence of Political Ads on Spanish-Language TV

    November 2, 2012
    On Friday, Free Press released Missing Out: Political Ads, Spanish-Language TV and the Latino Vote, a report analyzing political ad spending in the battleground states of Colorado, Florida and New Mexico. Political ad buys have skyrocketed to record-breaking levels nationwide, and much of that money is being spent in swing states, particularly by Super PACs and other third-party groups. But in the three states studied, Free Press found that few political ads have aired on Spanish-language stations.
  • TV Viewers 'Left in the Dark' About Flood of Political Ads

    September 24, 2012

    WASHINGTON – On Monday, Free Press released Left in the Dark, an analysis of political advertising and local news coverage in five cities — Charlotte, Cleveland, Las Vegas, Milwaukee and Tampa — where ad spending has skyrocketed this year.

More »


  • Inspecting Broadcasters' Public and Political Files

    September 14, 2012

    All stations are required to maintain public files that include information about station ownership, educational and community affairs programming and public complaints. These files also contain information on political ad spending. Even though this information is intended for the public, accessing it is inconvenient. Check out our handy how-to guide to learn how to inspect files at your local station.

  • Training: Inspecting TV Stations' Public and Political Files

    This training video will teach you everything you need to know about how to inspect the files, including what to bring, what to expect and how to find what you're looking for.

    August 23, 2012
  • Left in the Dark: Local Election Coverage in the Age of Big-Money Politics

    With more than $3.3 billion in political ad spending projected by Election Day, Free Press has turned its attention to the local television stations airing these ads. Left in the Dark explores whether stations barraging viewers with political ads are balancing this out with coverage of the role money is playing in this year’s elections. Read the full report here.

    September 24, 2012
  • Missing Out: Political Ads, Spanish-Language TV and the Latino Vote

    The Free Press report Missing Out: Political Ads, Spanish-Language TV and the Latino Vote examines political ad spending in the battleground states of Colorado, Florida and New Mexico.

    November 2, 2012
More »

News from Around the Web

  • Missing Out: Political Ads, Spanish-Language TV and the Latino Vote

    New American Media
    November 5, 2012

    Latino voters will play a critical role in the 2012 presidential race. An estimated 12 million Latinos will cast ballots this November, making up a significant portion of the electorate in swing states like Colorado, Florida and Nevada. One might assume that the presidential candidates, political parties and Super PACs would spare no expense to win over Latino voters. After all, Latinos make up 17 percent of the U.S. population. But so far, that has not been the case.

  • As Ads with Mystery Donors Rush Into Politics, Searching Their Wake for Clues

    Tech President
    October 10, 2012

    The Sunlight Foundation has launched "Political Ad Sleuth," a project to track and help contribute to a database detailing money spent on political ads this election year. The initial source of the documents in the database comes from around 200 local stations' political files which contain data on all the political ads bought at each station and at what price. The FCC mandated that broadcasters post those datasets online earlier this year. Sunlight worked with Free Press, journalists, journalism students and other volunteers across the country to make those files easier to search.

  • Reporting Recipe: Four Stories You Can Write Using Free the Files

    Pro Publica
    October 10, 2012

    The newly-available TV station public files offer details on political advertising spending on a scale that we never had before. There are several ways to slice and dice these files, and Pro Publica explains how the files can be used.

Learn More

  • Transparency and Accountability

    If you don't know how power works in this country — and you aren’t allowed to see the financial interests that often lurk behind prominent political voices — it's next to impossible to make meaningful decisions at the polls.
  • On-the-Road Political File Inspections

    Forget Kerouac: Free Press is embarking on a road trip for the ages. Our mission? To help voters make informed decisions at the polls come November.

    Back in April, the Federal Communications Commission answered the push from Free Press and other public interest groups and ruled that TV broadcasters must post their political files online. These files reveal who’s behind political ads — and how much they paid for airtime.

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good