Berkman: Drew Clark mashes up the FCC and the media

Drew Clark from the Center for Public Integrity should give hope to anyone interested in how the availability of data on the Internet might lead to better journalism. Clark, an experienced technology reporter, leads a project at CPI called “Well Connected“, which produces a brilliant tool called Mediatracker, a fascinating mashup system that lets users dig into the ownership and political affiliation of their local media.

Visiting Mediatracker and entering in my home zipcode, I discover that there 20 TV stations and 24 radio stations I might receive, 1 cable company, six broadband providers, and 42 newspapers published within 100 miles of my home. Clicking into the data, I can discover that five of those radio stations are owned by Clear Channel Communications. Clicking further, I discover that Clear Channel owns 1177 stations around the country. The site includes a recent corporate profile of Clear Channel as concerns media competition and regulation issues, and a page that shows political contributions made by Clear Channel employees (which go 70/30 to Republicans over Democrats.) One more click takes me to a page tracking contributions made to one of my senators, analyzing which sector of the communications industry gives the most money to him. A final click and we see what trips the Senator’s staffers have taken that were paid for by communications companies.

It’s a remarkable tool for people concerned about the relationship between media, money and politics. Center for Public Integrity has organized a five million record database to make the tool possible, leaning on publicly available FCC data, commercially-purchased data about newspaper circulation, data from SEC filings and from government transparency organizations, mashed up with Yahoo Maps. It’s a testament to how much data is available on these issues – in the US, at least – and how powerful and helpful it can be to have different information sets combined into a single site.

While Mediatracker is an incredibly rich tool, it’s got some shortcomings. It won’t tell me what companies offer broadband in my town – instead, it tells me that eight providers offer broadband in one Berkshire County zipcode, and six offer service in six zipcodes… but won’t tell me which zipcodes. Center for Public Integrity has Freedom of Information requests in to the FCC for this information, but FCC has refused this request and now CPI is suing the FCC to get this information.

If the data available on media ownership is impressive, the data Clark is preparing to release under the FCCWatch project is quite mindblowing. Clark is interested in the question of who watches the regulators, and wants to offer a rich set of data that lets interested parties see who is attempting to influence the FCC. The FCC is an interesting institution to watch, in the sense that their decisionmaking is heavily influenced by ex parte filings, filings from interested parties that aren’t revealed to all the participants in discussion over an issue. That means that when the FCC is trying to decide the future of the 700Mhz spectrum, non-profits, for-profits and interested individuals can all have contact with the FCC, but their submissions aren’t added to the public record.

Fortunately, there are lobbying disclosure rules that require companies to report their contacts with FCC commisioners. The new system Clark is developing scrapes a database of ex parte filings every hour and makes available a stunning level of detail about corporate contact with the FCC. We search contacts made to commissioner Kevin Martin, searching for Google, and discover that Larry Page called Martin a few days back to lobby for “whitespace” in the 700Mhz spectrum.

I’m most impressed not by the different ways Clark offers to slice and dice the data, but by the very availability of all this data. It’s one of the intriguing differences between government transparency efforts in developed and developing nations – in developing nations, the sheer acquisition of much of this data is a primary focus for transparency projects like Mzalendo. I ask Clark what data he wants that he doesn’t yet have. His answer:
– Information on broadband competition, speed and prive
– More detailed information about Congressional lobbying – who’s meeting with whom and on what issues
– State government information on lobbying
– International information

John Palfrey raises an important, though uncomfortable question – do these databases that make interesting lobbying data available really influence behavior? Our friends at Sunlight Foundation have worked to mash up huge amounts of data in different ways, but it’s unclear whether this information is going to reduce corruption, increase accountability or make better policy.

I’ve got two hopes that arise from projects like this one. One is that computer-assisted journalism suddenly becomes a whole lot easier to do when reporters don’t have to build their own tools. An enterprising reporter can now dig into Mediatracker and add an amazing amount of detailed information to a report on a local radio station’s closure, or the introduction of a competing broadband provider. More interesting to me in some ways is the idea that this level of disclosure should be an example, both domestically and internationally. How embarrasing is it that we know when an FCC commissioner spoke to Larry Page and about what, but that we still don’t know who Dick Cheney met with on an energy task force? And how long will it be acceptable for governments not to publish details like the ones available through these systems? Will tools that make this sort of information transparent and accessible help hasten government transparency efforts in developing nations?


More perspectives on the talk from Doc Searls and David Weinberger.

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