How New FCC Rules On Political Ads Impact N.C. Senate Race

Every TV station in the U.S. is now required to post its political ad sales online. NPR's Tamara Keith talks to Mark Binker of WRAL-TV about what this means for the North Carolina Senate race.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Tamara Keith. The midterm elections are four months away and that means that in states with hotly contested races, political ads dominate the airwaves. As of this week, the Federal Communications Commission is requiring all television stations across the country to make their political ad files available on the internet. But rather than overwhelm you with big numbers for spending nationwide, we're going to focus in on one state - North Carolina. It's a state with one of the most watched Senate races in the country between Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan and Republican State House Speaker Thom Tillis. Joining us to explain how the new FCC rules could affect the North Carolina Senate race is Mark Binker of WRAL-TV in Raleigh. Welcome.

MARK BINKER: Thank you.

KEITH: So in the past, it's been pretty hard to tell how much outside groups were spending on so-called issue ads, why is that?

BINKER: Because unlike candidates, which have to disclose their fundraising and spendings to the Federal Elections Commission, outside groups - a lot of them are basically incorporated nonprofits, they're businesses. And they don't really have a legal mandate to disclose. They're simply communicating a message. So what these Federal Communication Commission filings do is give us a sense of what they're spending on the biggest ticket item in politics right now, which is television advertising.

KEITH: So how do these new rules make what you do easier?

BINKER: Back in sort of the bad old days, the pre-2012 days, you would actually hop in your car, and if you had five or six television stations in your market, you would go to to five or six television stations and root through physical files to find out what groups were behind these ads. And the things in those files were valuable, not only because they sort of told you the volume of advertising in dollar terms and how many spots they were running, but also sometimes they were the only hints of who was actually behind an ad, you know. A lot of these groups have names like Mom For Apple Pie. Well, who is was Mom For Apple Pie? Sometimes the FCC files were your only hope to kind of figure out - oh, this is actually attached to this Republican or this Democratic organization.

KEITH: And in your state this year, there has been a time of spending already. On the Republican side, there are a couple of big names that of been doing this - Americans For Prosperity and Crossroads GPS. And I think we have an ad for Americans For Prosperity.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: Instead of listening to North Carolina, Hagan continues to push for Obamacare. Hagan supports waivers for friends of Obama and special treatment for Congress and their staffs -and who gets stuck with the bill?- families and small businesses. Kay Hagan, taking care of Washington insiders not North Carolina families.

KEITH: Do you know how much has been spent on uplifting ads like this so far this year?

BINKER: (Laughing) We use a service to track ad spending, and they estimate roughly $11 million in the U.S. Senate campaign, and that's both sides.

KEITH: And we have an ad from the Democratic side too from Patriot Majority U.S.A.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: Tillis supports a plan that would end Medicare as we know it and force seniors to spend up to $1,700 more for prescriptions. Thom Tillis, he's with the special interests hurting North Carolina families.

BINKER: Those ads are actually kind of typical in terms of both the Republican and Democratic strains. Republican ads and the Americans For Prosperity ads, all those kind of conservative leaning groups, are hitting Senator Hagan over her support for Obamacare. This has been the subject of the preponderance of those right-leaning groups, whereas this Patriot Majority ad is really criticizing Speaker Tillis for his work at the General Assembly.

KEITH: And they're spending millions of dollars to do it. I want to go back to these new filings that are now available online. If I wanted to go look this stuff up, how do I do it? What does it look like? Is it user-friendly?

BINKER: It is not terribly user-friendly. Basically, each station will upload what's called in the PDF file of each buy. And you can see each time somebody has placed in order for the ads. But then you actually have to go into that document and sort of read off, oh, OK this is how many commercials they've bought. This is how much they spent on it. It's not really what we call structured data that would allow us to do kind of easy analysis.

KEITH: Does all of this spending - all of these big numbers - does that tell you something about the race for Senate in North Carolina?

BINKER: Well, obviously the money doesn't come here unless lots of people deem it to be important. It tells you that in the year where control of the U.S. Senate is at stake, North Carolina is one of the places where both parties really see it as a battleground in a very important race.

KEITH: Mark Binker of WRAL speaking with us from member station WUNC in Durham, North Carolina. Thanks so much.

BINKER: You're welcome.

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