Saturday, May 31, 2008

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette says administrative takeover of Government Channel inappropriate

Replay of most recent Telecommunications Board meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. today at Cox Cable channel 16, known as City 16, in Fayetteville.

EDITORIALS : Shut up, she explained
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Northwest Edition
Posted on Saturday, May 31, 2008
LAYING DOWN fair rules for free

speech can cause government to

go bonkers. Such seems to be the case in Fayetteville, where the city administration has managed to shut down some public forums that have long had their place on the city’s Government Channel. A lot of the channel’s programming involves broadcasts of governmental meetings—a worthy undertaking in itself. But the channel has also produced public forums, in which members of the community discuss topics of interest that often involve controversy. After all, it’s Fayetteville, where a comment on the weather can start an argument.

What are some hot topics in Fayetteville these days ? Perhaps the future location of the high school. Or what’s going to become of the Walton Arts Center on Dickson Street.

Those subjects are getting a lot of talk in the papers, over the air, and in countless conversations in coffee shops and on street corners. But you won’t find them being discussed in forums on the Government Channel these days. The city’s would-be propaganda minister, Susan Thomas, has decided otherwise. The public forums have been dismantled.

Ms. Thomas’ actual title is public information officer. Right now she’s busy limiting public information. It seems she agrees with the latest word from the city attorney. Kit Williams has opined that the forums on the Government Channel might be an illegal use of the channel. So Susan Thomas now has a rationale for killing the forums. Or as she put it in pure doublespeak, she didn’t really cancel the forums. She just announced that planning them had been stopped. Another distinction without a difference. Censors have a million of ’em.

The decision bothered the chairman of the city’s Telecommunications Board, which was originally created to put a buffer between the channel and an overzealous city administration. Richard Drake, the board’s chairman, was stunned to hear that the city had stopped planning the forums—without checking with the board. There was no need, according to Susan Thomas. The city council, she said, makes policy decisions on matters like public forums.

Not so fast there, Ms. Thomas. Your decision to stop planning for the forums amounts to setting policy. Which is not your prerogative.

This is just the latest flare-up between the city’s administration and the Government Channel. Earlier, the city fired its cable administrator, Marvin Hilton, for reasons that have yet to be adequately explained. At the latest meeting of the Telecommunications Board, Ms. Thomas presented the administrator’s report that used to be given by Mr. Hilton. And she said she expected to continue giving the report at future meetings. The term for it is power grab.

What’s going on here ? Why the city administrator’s sudden interest in programming on the Government Channel ? And why, after all these years, are the public forums on the channel deemed illegal ? These issue forums have long been done remarkably well. They’re balanced. Every side is heard.

One suggestion has been to move the forums to the community access channel. That channel would probably do a good job on the forums. But there’s no requirement on the community access channel that all sides be heard. A producer could decide to leave out one or more of the sides. That would be a step down from the practice long used by the Government Channel.

The bigger concern is that the administration’s latest intrusions open the door to further meddling in programming on the Government Channel. Some future administration might be inclined to tamper with the policies even more. The programming could become just what it was designed not to be: a tool to put the current administration in the most favorable light.

Nancy Allen, an alderman, wants the city council to look into this flap over the Government Channel. It’s a good idea. Maybe the city council can get to the bottom of the administration’s growing interest in what can and cannot be said in public forums on the channel.

We’d especially like to hear something unequivocal from Dan Coody, the mayor. He’s notoriously touchy about public information that doesn’t come out the way he thinks it should. What’s his role in this flap ? Does he support undermining the independence of the Telecommunications Board ? And Susan Thomas’ fiddling with programming ? Good questions. Answers are needed.

The board also deserves to know where it stands with this administration. Does the board set policy for the Government Channel, or is the board just there to do the bidding of others—in this case, the city administration ?

The public forums on the Government Channel have been a good source of information about various topics of community interest. To undermine that success—for whatever reason—is a mistake. The city council needs to get to the bottom of this. Soon. Before silence becomes standard operating procedure. Even in once free-speaking Fayetteville.

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