Investigative reporter Stuart Watson of WCNC in Charlotte, N.C. did something unusual last week: He reported on his own station’s advertising.
Watson reports on politics and on public records, among other things. So he naturally took an interest in a proposal to require that public disclosure files once relegated to filing cabinets be put online and made truly public.
The twist, in this case, is that the files in question are kept not by a government body, but by broadcast television stations, including his own. These stations broadcast on public airwaves, and there are a few conditions to the licenses they hold, including the disclosure of certain information about their business, to help monitor the extent to which the stations serve “the public interest.” (The term itself is a source of great contention at the Federal Communications Commission, the body that oversees broadcast licensing.)
These files are, in theory, available for public inspection. But how often do people actually look at them? The political file, which discloses the purchase of advertising on behalf of political campaigns, is likely the most popular, and even that is viewed mainly by those in the business — political consultants and those who run professional political campaigns. In his segment, Watson physically walks viewers through the process of looking up a public file.
Watson interviewed me as a research fellow with the New America Foundation because of our organization’s work to gather and share public files, and to increase media transparency.
The FCC did vote to put political files online, despite intense lobbying from broadcasters against the proposal. The only TV camera at the commission’s meeting that day? WCNC’s.