Thursday, June 5, 2008

Fair and Balanced

It seems that most of the discussion about Fayetteville's Government Channel has been about the unilateral decision of Dr. Susan Thomas, Ph.D. to suspend the production and cablecasting of forums on local issues of public concern. That edict applied to all forums requested by elected Aldermen as well as private citizens.

City Attorney Kit Williams is quoted in the Northwest Arkansas Times as saying the problem is that any forums on the Government Channel programming should be "fair and balanced," but that government is prohibited from deciding what or who is fair and balanced. Baloney.
The Fairness Doctrine of the FCC, from 1949 until abolished under Ronald Reagan, said private broadcasters had an obligation to afford reasonable opportunity for discussion of contrasting points of view on controversial issues of public importance. The Commission also held that stations were also obligated to actively seek out issues of importance to their community and air programming that addressed those issues. The government made the call as to whether they did so.

Williams also said something else very interesting. He said the Government Channel
should "just be a purveyor of unvarnished information, just what the government is doing, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent." Right. What that does not address is who will be the designated Decider of what information is offered up. Who would decide to replay an excerpt of a city council meeting from more than a year ago? What objective standard would suggest that it was now in demand or even of current interest?

Would a Mayor dominate the Government Channel then try to claim that major financial problems are due to a "failure to communicate"? Would a Mayor or his Public Relations Adviser schedule a replay of events which made him look like an idiot?

Would they load up programming to support elections on taxes they wanted to raise and starve discussions about city ballot issues they opposed? Who, for example, would hog all the space on the City Website for one side of the issue and run a saturation schedule of 30 programs in the two days before the September 2006 sales tax election to "educate" the voters? Or, who would decide that in the two days before the April 2007 election on road impact fees, which the Mayor opposed, to program only three showings of a balanced forum requested by an alderman to present and discuss both sides of the issue?

The Telecommunications Board has the responsibility to recommend a new Government Channel Policy for consideration by the City Council. Can it craft a policy to guard against an administration that would abuse that public resource for blatant political purposes? Would the Council approve it? Would the Mayor veto it?

[Click on schedule to enlarge]

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