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Bill Lueders: TV political ads now easier to track

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Bill Lueders
September 2, 2014

Quick: How much was spent by all parties in the historic 2012 recall election between Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and challenger Tom Barrett?

A recent Associated Press article gave the generally accepted answer: $81 million. But this number cannot be gleaned from official filings, which do not include spending by outside groups on “issue ads”—those that stop short of telling people how to vote.

In Wisconsin, these expenditures are unregulated and undisclosed. Yet they are commonly included in tallies of overall spending, like the one cited by AP.

The $81 million figure comes from Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan watchdog. It includes tens of millions of dollars in outside spending uncovered through an onerous process: Going to individual state television stations to obtain the public records they must keep on political ad buys.

Now that process is about to get either a little or a whole lot easier, depending in part on people like you.

A Federal Communications Commission rule that took effect July 1 requires U.S. broadcast television stations to “immediately” post political ad buy data online. It expands an earlier pilot program, launched in 2012, for just the nation’s top 50 television markets. (Cable and radio stations are still exempt.)

“We love it,” says Mike Buelow, a former AP reporter who serves as research director for the Democracy Campaign. “We won’t have to go begging for volunteers to go to TV stations in northern Wisconsin.”

In the past, given the amount of work involved, Buelow’s group waited until after the election to generate spending totals that included these buys. “It was just too labor-intensive to do it weekly or even monthly,” he says.

But now it’s possible to compile comprehensive, up-to-date information. The Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C., is collecting the ad buy filings and posting them online, in a tool it calls Political Ad Sleuth.

Kathy Kiely, managing editor of the group’s reporting team, notes that the filings are far from user friendly: “What the stations are uploading is PDF files.” Someone must open each file, review the document and record the information.

That’s a lot of work. In Wisconsin, the three-dozen stations subject to the rule reported more than 1,000 political ad buys from candidates and outside groups in July alone. But Political Ad Sleuth has found a way to share the pain.

Anyone can register online to do data entry, logging the cost, run dates and total number of ads for each filing, and such optional information as the media buyer. Explains Kiely, “I want to know if some of these (outside) groups are using the same media buyer as the candidates they’re not supposed to be coordinating with.”

Kiely urges people to pick a given station, to get good at reading its forms, which differ widely. They may also want to focus first on third-party buys, which are not otherwise reported. The group has a YouTube tutorial to help people get started.

“I think this is an important effort,” Kiely says, suggesting it as an exercise for journalism and political science students, retirees and anyone else seeking to shine a light on those trying to influence the political process.

“People say ‘There’s too much money in politics, there’s nothing I can do,’” Kiely says. “Well, here’s something you can do.”

Once the data are entered, the file’s status will change and the information will be available for further crunching. The original document remains available so users can make sure the entries are right. And the pre-registration lets the Sunlight Foundation boot anyone who deliberately enters incorrect information.

Kiely says there is “no reason people have to remain ignorant” about who is pouring money into political contests. “The tools are out there to unmask these groups.”

But like other tools, they require some exertion on the user’s part.

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.



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