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Sustaining Democracy in a Digital Age

A Blog from New America's Media Policy Initiative

Bringing Broadcaster Public Files into the 21st Century

Published:  February 13, 2012

(Welcome to visitors from Bill Moyers' site. If you want to help collect public files please email me at glaisyer@newamerica.net.)

At the Media Policy Initiative we’ve made significant efforts to understand local media ecosystems. Much of this work has been focused on developing detailed analyses of specific cities or regions across the country. We have also engaged with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in a number of proceedings related to the public interest obligations of broadcasters.

In exchange for exclusive use of spectrum broadcasters took on public interest obligations. However, viewing the public files that document how broadcasters have fulfilled on that commitment can  hardly be considered accessible when compared to 21st century e-Government and transparency norms.

As part of our effort to understand the issue, we have visited a number of broadcasters and examined their public files - a task that currently requires visiting a station between Monday and Friday. Requesting a copy can result in costs of up-to 25 cents a page. People who have been following this issue at the FCC know this might change in the immediate future. The FCC is proposing to bring the broadcasters in to the 21st century and require they post public file information online including the contents of the political file.   

Last week the broadcasters made the bizarre claim that this move to share rate information online would force them to reveal “sensitive pricing data.”  The information is already available for anyone to inspect, though only between the hours of 9 and 5 in person at their offices and photocopied at the readers expense. Putting it online is just asking the broadcasters to enter the 21st century and make good on the public interest obligations broadcast stations took on in exchange for a government grant to use publicly owned spectrum for free. 
 
To help people understand what this means we have posted online the files we have collected directly and from others who have visited stations and shared them with us. Most of these are program issues lists but we have a couple of political files that we have obtained where there are some examples of political guidelinesrate cards and invoices.  (If you want some guidance on how to collect files Free Press has a How-to Guide and if you have questions please do email me at glaisyer@newamerica.net. I am very happy to upload files others have collected. See also ProPublica's similar efforts here.)
 
In an election cycle where the influence of money on politics is becoming increasingly visible this small step, to make existing records more accessible to the public, seems too obvious not to take.  We urge the FCC to move forward expeditiously.
 
Note: Updated and map added on 3/30/12.

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