It was the rule Star staff writers followed recently in an analysis of 1,027 pages of documents they collected from television stations in the Birmingham market, the market which includes Calhoun and surrounding counties.
Among the points they picked up in their work:
• Alabama’s historically expensive judicial election campaigns may this year be operating on a much more modest budget.
• Presidential super PACs are already buying more airtime than the candidates themselves.
• A Texas millionaire’s PAC bought tens of thousands of dollars worth of ads to try to unseat an Alabama congressman — just because he doesn’t like incumbents.
Star staff writers spent several days visiting five Birmingham stations — NBC 13, CBS 42, Fox 6, the CW 21 and ABC 33/40 — and scanning documents from the stations’ public advertising files. The documents are available at: www.annistonstar.com/special_politicalad.
The Federal Communications Commission requires all broadcast television stations to maintain a file of sales of political advertising. And those files, according to law, are supposed to be available to the public at all times.
The files offer a backstage look at the blitz of advertising Alabama residents saw in the run-up to March’s presidential primaries. And they offer a glimpse of what we may see again, as the November general election approaches. They cover a wide range of issues, from national races — such as Mitt Romney’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination — to local issues, such as a measure to curb cockfighting.
While they’re known as “public” files, they’re seen mostly by campaign operatives and staffers from competing TV stations, who are looking for an edge on the opposition, according to accounts from employees at various Birmingham stations. It’s rare for an average voter to walk in and ask to see the files that record who — or what organization — spent money on advertising, and how much.
Some people would like that to change. ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning nonprofit that does journalism projects, has asked “citizen journalists” to visit their local station, collect the documents, and send them to the organization for posting online.
ProPublica has advocated for FCC rule changes that would require the stations to do that work themselves. ProPublica argues that the files aren’t really all that public if they’re hidden away in a file cabinet where few will see them.
“A lot of people are beginning to see the value of these files, whether it be journalists or everyday readers,” said journalist Daniel Victor, former director of ProPublica’s Free the Files campaign.
ProPublica writer Justin Elliot said there are often significant details in these documents. He pointed to an effort in Michigan in which researchers found spending on TV advertising that had not been reported on campaign finance forms.
The FCC seems to agree. The federal agency voted in April to require that the public files be posted online in the nation’s top 50 television markets. FCC officials announced earlier this month that the rule would go into effect on Aug. 2.
But that may not happen. The National Association of Broadcasters has filed for a court injunction that would put that requirement on hold. Among other things, the association’s brief argues that online publication of the public file would make it too easy for other media outlets — cable-only stations and other media — to see the broadcast stations’ advertising rates, giving the cable companies an unfair advantage.
“It definitely puts broadcasters at a disadvantage if the competition can check advertising rates in Florida or Ohio with just a couple of clicks,” said Dennis Wharton of the National Broadcasters Association.
FCC spokeswoman Janice Wise said the agency would not comment on its decisions while the court case is pending.
Birmingham’s TV market stretches from the Tuscaloosa area east to Anniston and surrounding cities. Birmingham ranks as the 39th largest market in the nation, according to Nielsen ratings, which makes it one of the markets affected by the FCC ruling. Birmingham is the only top-50 market in the state, which means stations in other Alabama markets have until 2014 to place their files online.