What if you could track every political ad and news segment on TV in the Philadelphia market, see what it said, and, in the case of ads, find out who paid for it?
That would tell you much about the information/disinformation flow, the quality of reporting and analysis, the money and the moneybags. It might illuminate, in new detail, the playing field for November, and beyond.
Two recent developments have brought that day much nearer.
First, as of July 1, under a 2012 FCC decision, all TV stations must now make their political ad information public, digitally.
Second, the Internet Archive - the San Francisco nonprofit creating a digital history library - has started a program titled Philadelphia Media Landscape (bit.ly/1zn427h) in the Philadelphia market, and it's very cool.
The archive is recording all of the TV news shows and political ads in our area. Ultimately (the website is empty right now), you will be able to search and rewatch them online, as soon as 24 hours after broadcast. The first focus is on election season 2014, but in this 24/7/365 political world, the project will keep going toward 2016. The archive is also collecting Philadelphia-related Web info, from such places as party and campaign sites and news blogs. First fruits will show up in August, the project managers hope.
To be sure, political ads are now microtargeted online, on cable news, even down to the text message. But a God's-eye view of the broadcast landscape would be invaluable.
Why Philadelphia? Roger McDonald, the Internet Archive's director for television, says, "It's the fourth-largest TV market in the country. And the market area, which includes southern New Jersey, is a truly diverse community, with varieties of local issues and players seeking a voice."
Researchers also were intrigued by three area races thought to be highly contested: In Pennsylvania's Sixth District, where Republican Ryan Costello vies against Democrat Manan Trivedi; in Pennsylvania's Eighth District, where incumbent Republican Mike Fitzpatrick faces Democratic challenger Kevin Strouse; and in New Jersey's Third District, where Republican Tom MacArthur faces Democrat Aimee Belgard.
"Close House races are comparatively rare," says McDonald, "and it's rare to have as many as three in this small an area. These are races that will prompt media coverage, and a lot of money could be spent in advertising, in which so-called dark money might flow."
Also involved is the Linguistic Data Consortium at the University of Pennsylvania, which is helping with access. "We've set up a convenient means for digitalizing everything in the broadcast media market," says consortium director Mark Liberman, "and sending it to the Internet Archive over the Internet."
The first steps are old-school. "What we are is a digital library," McDonald says, perhaps too modestly. "We compile the TV material, and then people sit down and mark it, 'This is a political ad,' 'This is a political news story,' 'This begins here and ends here,' 'This is about this issue.' When all the human work is in place, that, we hope, will help teach, so to speak, an automatic algorithm to do the same work."
TV contract information - who buys what ads on what stations - will also be archived and searchable, by station, time, date, amount paid, and who paid. That's thanks to the Sunlight Foundation, an open-government nonprofit in Washington. Kathy Kiely is its managing editor.
"Stations have long been required to keep records on who pays for their ads," Kiely says. "This information has been around since 1938, but you had to go to the station in person." Now, as mentioned, all stations must make their records available digitally. "It's in a lot of different forms, though," Kiely says, "so we're looking for volunteers to help pull it together." The Committee of Seventy found a first group of volunteers, experienced from its elections work; now more are needed.
Sunlight started the website Political Ad Sleuth (politicaladsleuth.com) in 2012. "It's a database of TV ad information searchable across TV markets and across stations." Kiely says. "You can filter it by group name or contributor name, and you can also filter it by date."
A searchable database of all the people paying for all the political ads in our area "would give us what we haven't had before," Kiely says, "a kind of empowering access that we think is needed in this age of Citizens United."
Who would use this? Journalists, academics, political junkies, and, someday, any interested citizen. Danilo Yanich, associate professor at the University of Delaware, is a bit of all four. He studies how ad money influences political discourse.
"With this new project, what's great is that TV stays, it's not here one day, gone the next," Yanich says. "We can look at it, and we can ask, 'During newscasts, what ads were run, what did they say, who paid for them?' We can also ask, 'Did the media ever ask questions about the claims in the ads?' "
(Yanich once studied a September-to-Election Day election run-up in Honolulu. He found out, depressingly, that "virtually no political stories on TV examined the claims in any political ads.")
"Too much depends on those with the money to buy ads," Yanich says. "Citizens, voters, think they make up their own minds, and they do. But money shapes and directs the political dialogue all around us. Issues come to the surface, or don't, because powerful interests want them to."
With the Internet Archive project, Yanich says, "Ordinary citizens will be able to do what I do. It does have the potential to create a new sector of political information - and, I hope, make it harder to hide."