Lily Korte of Canton took a peek at the money side of politics and was astonished.
While sitting at home watching The Daily Show on Comedy Central, she has been pulling up on her computer the billing statements for political advertisements from TV stations all over the country.
She’s copying what she finds into a national database.
What Korte knows from this exercise is that millions of dollars are being spent to sway votes. But what she doesn’t know is who is really behind the money, and what is their intention, if their candidate wins?
She is participating in Free the Files, a journalism project sponsored by ProPublica, designed to track who is spending money on political advertising, how much and where.
Without volunteers chipping away at the thousands of records in the nation’s 50 largest TV markets, there’s little chance that anyone else could muster the resources.
So far, the Cleveland-Akron-Canton area is the nation’s leader with TV records entered into the database and $89.9 million in purchases, according to ProPublica.
Part of the goal is to expose so called “dark money” that comes from vaguely named organizations that don’t disclose their donors but appear to be backing specific candidates.
Some observers have speculated that as much as $1 billion will be spent on this year’s elections by various organizations.
By Friday afternoon, more than 400 Free the Files volunteers had gleaned thousands of political ad buys. They have identified the amounts and purchasers of $384 million for those television ads Americans love to hate.
Another group, the Sunlight Foundation, is seeking to collect data from all other stations — the smaller markets — a harder task because that information is not online.
Korte is an unemployed college graduate who follows politics and had some idea of what she might find; still, she was astonished.
“I always knew it was a lot of money but there’s something about seeing all the documents and seeing ad buys,” she said. “Eventually you reach a point where something like $50,000 seems like a tiny amount of money because you just saw an ad buy that was half a million dollars. It’s just ridiculous. It’s thousands and thousands of these things.”
The volunteers look at the online documents and key the data into a program that gathers all of the facts and makes it available to the public. Friday afternoon, she ranked fifth among all gleaners with 1,333 files inspected and transcribed into the Free the Files data files. The leader, who was identified only as KB, had revealed 6,957 files.
To assure accuracy, another person, selected at random, must enter identical information before the record goes into the database.
Making it difficult
The television stations are reluctant participants in the project and do not make it easy.
Although the 50 largest markets had to put the forms online, stations were permitted by the FCC to provide the data in any page format they wished. Moreover, the forms are in a computer “PDF” format that prevents extraction of the key numbers and names sought for the project.
Instead, the volunteers must search the small print and then type the relevant information into a Free the Files program.
The federal government made the online filings mandatory for the largest markets earlier this year. However, in critical swing states such as Ohio, where millions may be flowing to smaller markets, that left out stations in towns such as Youngstown, the nation’s 109th-ranked market.
Those stations do, however, have to keep the reports on site.
Cleveland stations asked to comment on the project did not return telephone calls.
The political ads represent a windfall for the stations, but they also increase expenses, and the forms disclose sensitive pricing and other important business information, said Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters.
“It’s an additional burden in terms of making sure that we have our information accurate, in terms of legal fees and in terms of manpower hours,” Wharton said. “It’s hard for us to make that claim and get much sympathy, admittedly, because our stations in competitive states, in competitive markets, are for sure making more money this time of year. But that’s not to say that every broadcast station in the country is making this alleged windfall.”
The NAB also objected to the FCC’s exclusion of cable channels in the filing requirement. Because of the exclusion, cable companies will get a peek at broadcast stations’ customer names and pricing.
Wharton said candidates get a 30 percent discount on the going rate for ads, but overall rates increase for presidential elections when demand is at its greatest and “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Third-party advertisers such as Crossroads GPS, a group started by Republican operative Karl Rove, or the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee pay full freight.
The ad revenue puts a new perspective on watching those commercials for the people gathering the data.
The ads “were annoying before you knew how much money they are throwing at them,” said Rachel Lundberg, a 21-year-old senior at Youngstown State University who has “freed” about 40 files as part of a class. “It makes it a little more disgusting, honestly.”
Lee Murry, another YSU student from England, said gathering the data put American politics in a different perspective.
“I was struck how it is more of a PR process,” he said. “It’s just about ramming home messages and it’s not about how true they are or how accurate they are.”
ProPublica and Sunlight are nonprofit foundations dedicated to disclosing information about government that for-profit reporters might not have the time to do because of other obligations and budgetary limits. Colleges are a big source of manpower but the public also is invited to contribute.
“We think this is really, really important,” said Alyssa Lenhoff, director of the journalism major at Youngstown State. “We think this is an interesting experiment in crowd-source journalism.”
Amada Zamora, ProPublica’s senior engagement editor, said the project is nonpartisan and simply seeks to give the public information it needs to know. That’s why the goal is to get as many of the documents inspected by the Nov. 6 elections.
“I think it will certainly reinforce the idea that there’s been an influx of spending in this election and that spending has been substantial,” she said.
Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Scott on Twitter at Davescottofakro.