TV Political Files Disappoint Public Interest Groups

Files were key to track spending by PACs

When the Federal Communications Commission required TV stations in the top 50 markets to move their political disclosure files online just in time for the election, public interest groups were elated. Finally, they had a way to track the spending of all those PACs and special interest groups that were unleashed by the Citizens United case.

But the files haven't been all that easy to use as a tracking tool, the Sunlight Foundation discovered. The Washington, D.C. group, which took the time and effort to save all the files on a document cloud, found that about 2,100 (about 6 percent) of all 35,300 records have been taken down.

Now, before everyone races to point fingers at the TV stations, the Sunlight Foundation says the stations aren't the problem. Rather, it's pointing the finger at the FCC's lack of clarity about what files the TV stations should keep online.

"Different stations are interpreting the regulation in different ways," said Kathy Kiely, the managing editor of Sunlight Foundation Reporting, the reporting unit of the foundation. "I don't think it's malice on the part of the TV stations, but we think it should be clarified."

More than likely, the files were taken down because the orders changed or were altered or pulled as candidates scrambled to heavy up on contested markets and lighten up on lost causes.

"I'm interested in when [advertising groups] make a change because it could be a change in strategy," Kiely said.

While that may be valuable information the Sunlight Foundation would like to have, they'll probably have to go elsewhere for it. According to the FCC rule, TV stations don't have to keep files online that have been updated.

"If the final order is later amended after being included in the online political file, a station can replace the previously final order with the amended final order or may simply upload the amended final order," the FCC rule states.

From the get-go, moving the TV political disclosure files online has always been about politics. Public interests groups advocated the files go online because they saw them as an opportunity to keep tabs on outside spenders in elections. Though the FCC seemed to go along with the transparency pitch, it has always maintained that it was a "common sense" move. 

"[The Sunlight Foundation] wants the FCC to fix something it has no jurisdiction over," said Scott Flick, a partner with Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. "The files are not something that are intended to be mined by advocates and academicians. The purpose of the files are so that political candidates can determine what their competitor is running and to monitor the lowest unit rate."