Columbus City Council Challengers Want to Restore Public Access TV

(This article was published in The Columbus Free Press shortly before the Nov. 2013 general election for Columbus City Council.)

Independent candidate for Columbus City Council Nicholas Schneider is making his support for public access TV a major issue of his campaign. The issue is featured on his campaign’s website, and he is raising it at campaign events.

At the Oct. 16 candidates’ forum at CentennialHigh School, Schneider charged that Council’s failure to fund public access TV stems from a desire to suppress freedom of speech and dissenting views in the city. During closing remarks at the event, Schneider said that earlier in the evening he asked Democratic incumbent Councilman Troy Miller what Miller’s position is on the issue, but Miller refused to answer. The audience at the event also heard nothing about the issue from Eileen Paley and Priscilla Tyson, the other two incumbent Democratic Council members on the Nov. 5 ballot.

Schneider later told The Free Press that public access TV would be good for local groups to use to communicate with the public and for showing documentaries made by activists around the country. He said the city’s failure to provide this service is “an example of the erosion of our First Amendment rights.”

Republican Council Candidate Brian Bainbridge also supports public access TV. He told The Free Press “it gives the neighborhoods, it gives the people, a voice.” He said that without it, Columbus is “just not as enlightened on neighborhood events” and on “some of the struggles the neighborhoods are going through.” He called it “a true form of democracy – democracy in its purest form, when you think about it.”  

The other Republican Council candidate, Greg Lawson, is supportive too. He told The Free Press that if done correctly, public access TV is “a good thing” that can be “used to have a conversation.” He said “it does offer some legitimate outlets for non-incumbents” and for “people with different views than the current power structure.” He thinks the city’s failure to support it has been, at least in part, because “they probably didn’t care to have alternative viewpoints out there.”

In late 2012, the Columbus Coalition for Responsive Government and others began urging Council to include funding for public access TV in the city’s 2013 budget. This led to Jeanette Hawkins in Councilman Miller’s office sending an email to the Coalition’s Jon Beard on Feb. 1: “At this time Council will not be amending the City budget to provide for Public Access t.v. However, through Council President Ginther’s office, Council is working to research best practices in comparable cities across the U.S. in order to understand the feasibility of funding such an initiative here in Columbus.”

Hawkins’ message could be interpreted to mean Council was seeing merit in the arguments for public access TV and was interested enough to research “best practices” in other cities having it, in order to determine the “feasibility” of adopting those practices in Columbus. This interpretation gave hope to the issue’s proponents. 

Their hope appears to be dashed, though, by a response The Free Press received to questions recently submitted to Council. Kenneth Paul, chief of staff for City Council President Andrew Ginther, indicated in an email that the research did not lead to action toward restoring public access TV.  

Paul wrote: “The legislative research office of Council was instructed to perform a high-level analysis of practices . . .  relative to the public funding of cable access television in municipalities comparable to Columbus. The research was . . . for the primary purpose of determining whether Columbus’ policy with regard to public funding for cable access television was substantially dissimilar to those in peer cities. . . . While the research performed was in no way comprehensive, had the initial analysis shown any resurgence in publicly funded cable access television in comparable cities, additional research may have been warranted. However, no such trend was identified, and research . . . was stopped . . . .”

Paul’s message thus indicates Council’s research didn’t focus on the feasibility of bringing public access TV to Columbus but on the popularity of it among other cities. And based on “high-level analysis” that “was in no way comprehensive,” a decision was made that the popularity wasn’t great enough for Columbus to consider having it. After receiving this information, The Free Press gave City Council a public records request for all documents relating to the research. Stay tuned for more about that in a future article.

As for Council’s position, Paul continued: “While the Council President does not wish to imply that he speaks for all of Council where this matter is concerned, at no point in time has funding for cable access television been advanced by any member of Council, nor has Mayor Coleman included funding for cable access television in his budget proposals. My expectation is that . . . support for appropriating taxpayer dollars to fund cable access television does not presently exist on Council. That said, other members of Council or their staff may wish to respond. . . .“

The Free Press has not received any other response from Council members or their staff. And the public still has no statement from the incumbent Council candidates about their position on the issue or their reaction to the specific arguments being made by the challengers.

At a patio table during a July 2012 Franklin County Democratic event at Patrick J’s, Paley said she didn’t know the answers to questions asked there about public access TV. (Council’s communications director, John Ivanic, was also at the table and helpfully told her twice that “The answer is no.”) Maybe Paley still doesn’t know the answers. In any event, on this issue the incumbent Council candidates appear to be continuing the unresponsiveness that Miller showed to Schneider the other week.

Support for public access TV was once so strong in Columbus that it was written into law, where it remains to this day. In Title 5 of the Columbus Code, Section 595.01(E)(4) says the city’s policy on cable communications systems includes “promotion of increased public . . . access and programming, in terms of quality and amount.” This would seem to make other questions, such as how popular public access TV is among comparable cities, irrelevant. But city officials have ignored the law.  

Columbus had public access TV for decades until the city government drastically cut funding for it in 2001, the year after Michael Coleman became mayor. The station closed not long thereafter. Back then, Coleman and others in the city government said the funding cuts weren’t a reaction to program content on the station. Coleman told The Other Paper in January 2001 that the problem was “a lack of money.”  

From then until the present, the views expressed on local TV have been only those permitted by powerful corporate or governmental interests. As for allowing citizens to balance those views by means of public access TV, for years city officials treated this service as something the city couldn’t afford, even though hundreds of other U.S. cities provided it.

For example, Mike Brown in the mayor’s office wrote in 2006 that the city “faced significant budget challenges during the recession of the early 2000s, and that led to significant reductions to all discretionary spending, including public financing for Public Access Television. . . . While Mayor Coleman supports the concept of Public Television and Access, it remains a much lower priority than public safety, health or other essential neighborhood services in our annual budgeting process.”

After Columbus voters approved a 25% increase in the city’s income tax rate in 2009, the resulting revenue increases and budget surpluses didn’t impel City Council or the mayor to fund public access TV. They instead claimed that social media such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have caused citizens to no longer need it for communicating to the public.

As Paul in Ginther’s office wrote in 2011: “The advent of social media, and the wide acceptance and accessibility to digital technology has changed the way we communicate. YouTube allows for the immediate and free global distribution of video, including political commentary. Facebook and Twitter have been credited with aiding the overthrow of decades-old dictatorships abroad, and are the tools used to organize protests at our own state capital. These medium were not created at taxpayer expense, but have had a profound impact on political discourse.” 

In explaining Coleman’s continuing opposition to funding public access TV, his spokesman Dan Williamson wrote in 2012: “The public has more access to media than ever through YouTube, blogs and social media,” and “The mayor has no plans to bring back public access television.”

The logical extension of their argument means, however, that city officials also don’t need TV to get their messages to a mass audience but instead can use social media, just like they expect other citizens to do. They could thereby save hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars by closing the city’s government TV channel 3 (CTV) on which they regularly appear. And they could use those funds for the “public safety, health or other essential neighborhood services” that Coleman was supposedly so concerned about in opposing funding for public access TV. Plus, city officials no longer need to raise campaign funds to use for buying political ads on TV, thus allowing them to focus more on the city’s problems.

A public records request revealed that when those points were given in writing to Council in 2011, Paul wrote to the offices of the Council members: “I do not intend to respond or otherwise engage in this conversation. Others may do as they wish.” None of the Council members or their staff responded, either. Their silence was inconsistent with Tyson’s statement to the audience at CentennialHigh School that when citizens contact Council about an issue, they receive an answer.

Moreover, Council and the mayor have continued funding and appearing on the government TV channel, and kept raising money for campaign ads on TV. That behavior is strange, and a waste of time and money, if they really believe the argument about social media making television unneeded for communicating to the public.

With Schneider pushing the issue hard in his campaign for City Council, with his charge that Council is denying freedom of speech to Columbus citizens, with Bainbridge and Lawson also supporting a return of public access TV, with the Columbus Code seeming to require the city to support it, with other cities in Ohio and throughout the U.S. providing it, and with the incumbent Council candidates avoiding the issue, one would hope The Columbus Dispatch would be all over the issue in order to educate the public about it.

But that hasn’t happened. When informed of Council’s decision early this year to research the possibility of bringing public access TV back to Columbus, The Dispatch chose not to report on it. Nor has The Dispatch shown curiosity about the progress of the research or its results. The Dispatch also has been uninterested in the city law supporting public access TV. And after Schneider began raising the issue in the City Council race, Lucas Sullivan, who covers City Hall for The Dispatch, indicated by email he agrees with the argument about social media being sufficient for citizens to get their messages out. He thus didn’t seem to see a need for a story.

After problems with city officials’ argument about social media were explained to him, Sullivan indicated The Dispatch might provide coverage of the issue. He wrote in an Oct. 18 email: “Next time I do a City Council race story before the election tell Mr. Schneider to return my calls and then bring it up. That’s the best way to do it.”

That approach unfortunately leaves the responsibility with Schneider, while The Dispatch appears to see no affirmative duty to investigate the issue and educate the public about it, not even while it’s a campaign issue in an impending City Council election. It’s unclear how this behavior could be considered consistent with the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, which says a journalist’s duty includes “seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues.”

Some supporters of public access TV suspect that the reluctance of The Dispatch and other local media to report on this issue may be because they too oppose public access TV. Citizens could use that medium to tell hundreds of thousands of Central Ohioans not only about inaccuracies in the local government’s propaganda, but also about the commercial news media’s errors and omissions in reporting on local stories and issues. 

Keeping those deficiencies hidden from the masses is much better for the local politicians’ chances of being reelected, the corporate media’s bottom line, and the establishment’s ability to mold public opinion in their favor. As Carter G. Woodson famously said: “If you can control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his action.”

So in refusing to allow public access TV, are the power players in Columbus engaging in thought control and suppression of criticism, as ruling elites have tried to do throughout the world for millennia? Or is it more reasonable to believe the previous claims about a lack of money, and the later claims about social media, all in the face of the incumbent Council candidates remaining silent about the issue and continuing to appear on the government TV channel and in paid political ads on the commercial TV channels?

You be the judge. But don’t expect much help from The Dispatch in reaching a conclusion.

[The website for the Columbus Coalition for Responsive Government is at www.columbuscoalition.info.]