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Victory! Political Files Go Online
(Photo: Damian Gadal / Flickr)

Victory! Political Files Go Online

(Photo: Damian Gadal / Flickr)

It’s here! It’s finally here!

Today’s the day we get our first glimpse into the deep, dark pockets of major network TV broadcasters all across the nation. The FCC’s online political files database launches today — and not a minute too soon.

In the post-Citizens United era, manipulative and misleading political ads are bombarding our public airwaves. Super PACs are throwing money at broadcasters at head-spinning rates. And with the 2012 presidential election looming, these rates are predicted to soar.

For decades, every broadcast TV station has been required to keep a “political file”: records detailing who has purchased political ad time from the station and how much they paid for airtime. Unfortunately, anyone wanting to see this information had to schlep down to their local stations to inspect it. And trust me, that’s no easy feat — some stations require advance appointments, some charge exorbitant fees for making copies and some keep their files so poorly organized that an outside set of eyes would have no idea which direction is up.

So how do we fix this problem and allow for more transparency and more convenience? Simple: Put the files online!

And the Federal Communications Commission agrees. This April, in response to the efforts of Free Press and other public interest groups, the agency voted to get the political files out of the filing cabinets and onto the Internet.

The FCC’s rule requires stations affiliated with the four major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox) in the nation’s top 50 markets to post political ad records online starting today. The remaining stations can delay posting until 2014.

This decision is a huge step in the right direction — but the broadcasters fought it every step of the way, claiming the rule was too expensive and cumbersome to implement. In fact, the National Association of Broadcasters is currently in court challenging the rules — but Free Press has intervened in the case to help protect the FCC order.

While the ruling is a crucial win for media transparency, let’s be real here: It’s still the very first step in a long and extensive process. There are over 2,200 broadcast TV stations in the country. This rule requires only 200 of them to put their political files online as of Aug. 2. And the rule doesn’t require stations to upload all of their old files retroactively — it applies only to ads purchased from today forward.

Furthermore, an awful lot of political ad money will be spent in markets that are exempt from today’s deadline. Stations in small media markets that are big electoral battlegrounds (like parts of Ohio and Virginia) have until 2014 to post their files online. Telemundo and Univision affiliates serving Spanish-speaking voters — a key electoral demographic — also have until 2014 to put their files online. This means that the millions of Americans who are about to get hit with political ads the most are left with no easy way to access information about local political ad spending.

To help fill those gaps in time for this election, Free Press has partnered with the Sunlight Foundation and the New America Foundation to recruit volunteers to collect files from the exempted stations in their own local TV markets. With the help of our activists all over the country, we’ve already started sorting and uploading these files to our user-friendly and accessible online database. Take a look and see if you can find out who’s been buying the rights to your eyes and ears. Or sign up here to find out how you can inspect the political files at your local stations.

Broadcasters have held the keys to our elections for too long; it’s about time we take them back. Maybe we can’t keep Super PACs from using their money to manipulate us, but with the help of the FCC, we can at least find out who’s trying to tell us what — and that’s a great first step.

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