Public-Access TV Needed More than Ever

Introduction

In the 1990s the Humanist Community of Central Ohio regularly showed television programs on Columbus’s public-access station. The shows enabled viewers to hear the ideas of many humanistic leaders and thinkers on a variety of subjects.

Most of the programs were produced by the American Humanist Association in the 1970s and 1980s. A couple of the programs were made by the Freedom From Religion Foundation in the 1980s.

By featuring thoughtful analysis of important issues, the programs contrasted markedly with the inane and inaccurate tripe often shown on commercial television. Many people found this humanistic television alternative to be highly refreshing.

Local Dems close the station

But public-access TV in Columbus was ended in about 2001, not long after a Democrat was elected mayor. Along with a Democratic city council, the mayor cut off funding for the station.

They thereby prevented community groups and average citizens – including traditional Democratic constituencies – from presenting views on Columbus television as a counterbalance to what is shown on the corporate media.

City officials say no money is available for public-access TV, even though cable TV companies pay $7 million in franchise fees to the city each year. And numerous smaller U.S. cities somehow continue funding and offering the service.

Moreover, during many previous years that the Republicans held the mayor’s office, public-access TV was always funded. Whatever the Democratic Party is in Columbus, it doesn’t seem like a “party of the people.”

The continuing lack of public-access TV harms not only the Humanist Community but also all of Central Ohio. Besides keeping important information from citizens, this disrespect for public discussion makes the region look narrow-minded, smug, and even un-American.

Founders supported public discussion

The Founders of the U.S. gave the highest priority to an open marketplace of ideas. They viewed it as a necessary condition for progress and an essential check on public and private corruption.

They therefore passionately supported the right to free speech and placed it at the beginning of the Bill of Rights.

Thomas Jefferson thought that freedom of speech is more important than government itself. He stated that “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Jefferson also said the right to speak freely and receive information is so important that, in its defense, “every spirit should be ready to devote itself to martyrdom; for as long as we may think as we will, and speak as we think the condition of man will proceed in improvement.”

Because the Founders viewed freedom of speech as so important, they believed that the public sector is responsible for ensuring the availability of forums where all voices can be heard. That’s why the government provided massive, content-neutral postal and printing subsidies to support free speech in the first half of the 19th century. Jefferson said he wanted a postal system enabling ideas to “penetrate the whole mass of the people.”

Those subsidies were made despite the many other needs of the new nation. And the subsidies were important to the survival of the abolitionist press.

Thus, placing the highest priority on governmental support for public discussion could not be more consistent with the free-speech principles of the Founders.

Other cities and national Dems agree with the Founders

Because public-access TV is an excellent forum for the public debate the Founders advocated, hundreds of American cities provide it. At least in regard to free speech, then, Columbus’s claim to be the “All-American City” falls far short.

Moreover, Democratic leaders at the national level strongly advocate alternatives to the corporate media. In view of the false and misleading propaganda spread by networks such as Fox News, they would be expected to.

After observing that 77% of the people who voted for George W. Bush in 2004 thought weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq and that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11, Sen. John Kerry denounced the increasing corporatization of the media and the resulting spread of disinformation. He asserted that diversity of media content is “critical to who we are as a free people. It’s critical to our democracy.”

Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean has also lambasted the control that conglomerates now have over the information citizens receive. He stated: “We need to have a wide variety of opinions in every community,” and “I’d like public airways devoted to some public services.”

In response to the same problems, Congressman Dennis Kucinich has proposed a number of reforms, including “expansion of support for community-controlled media, in order to ensure the existence of media outlets that are free of the influence of advertisers.”

In his book The Assault on Reason, Al Gore points out that most Americans now obtain their political information from TV instead of newspapers or other print media. He explains that democracy can’t function properly if big-money interests are the only ones able to present views on that medium. In those circumstances, the concerns of millions of Americans are not heard in the most important and influential political forum.

Rather, the media conglomerates and other big-money interests control which issues will be discussed on TV, which positions on the issues will be presented, and what slant will be given to the presentations. As a result, public policy is not driven by reasoned debate in which all relevant information is taken into account – as the founders intended – but instead by money, power, and propaganda.

Because the information presented in the corporate media is restricted in favor of the rich and powerful, they can and do use that media to manipulate public opinion to their advantage. No wonder national Democratic leaders support ways for alternative views to be presented on TV.

Local Dems continue censoring

Nevertheless, Columbus’s Democratic officials ceded almost total control of the local media to corporations whose goal is to make profits rather than present all sides of issues.

And maximizing profits often means ensuring that citizens do not hear certain information. For example, if a conglomerate has a division that sells supplies to the military, profit-minded executives are unlikely to allow the corporation’s media division to broadcast information critical of military spending.

Despite such actual and potential conflicts of interest being widespread in the corporate media, Columbus’s city officials have repeatedly rebuffed calls for bringing public-access TV back to the community.

The government channel is only a technical exception to the corporate control of the Columbus media. There, corporate-backed city officials recite their talking points and otherwise pat themselves on the back without having to deal with criticism.

A reason for the lack of criticism is that on the government channel, the city stopped showing the speakers on non-agenda items at city council meetings.

As if all this wasn’t enough, the city further clamped down on dissent by requiring permission and 15 days’ notice for any rally at city hall. Other restrictions were also placed on protests there.

Dangers of censorship

By repeatedly curtailing freedom of speech, city officials are leading Columbus in a perilous direction. U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas warned in 1952: “Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.”

That act is so dangerous because open discussion of public issues and a well-informed citizenry are at the foundation of a government that is supposed to be based, as the Declaration of Independence says, on “the consent of the governed.”

Abraham Lincoln described that government as “of the people, by the people, for the people.” He believed it would succeed if the people have access to complete and accurate information for making decisions. As he stated: “I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.”

Jefferson similarly said that “whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government. . . .” He also indicated the people’s consent is not legitimate unless it is informed: “An informed citizenry is the only true repository of the public will.”

James Madison warned of what can happen to a republic in which people don’t have access to the facts. He said: “A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

George Washington likewise warned of the dangers of keeping people ignorant about public issues. He stated that “the freedom of speech may be taken away, and dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”

History contains numerous examples of slaughters and other harms caused by demagogic leaders who indoctrinated people with propaganda and kept them from hearing opposing views. Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, and Islamic theocracies are some of the most recent and worst examples.

In his book The End of Faith, Sam Harris identifies a common feature of such societies. He writes: “Whenever you hear that people have begun killing noncombatants intentionally and indiscriminately, ask yourself what dogma stands at their backs. What do these freshly minted killers believe? You will find that it is always – always – preposterous.”

Freedom of speech enables people to recognize and reject preposterous and harmful dogmas before the slaughters or other evils begin. That’s a reason selfish and tyrannical leaders are ever desirous of controlling what people say and hear. They know that the people would not consent to their leadership if all information about their ideas, intentions, and acts were publicly available.

Conclusion

Amazingly, in regard to freedom of speech, Columbus’s Democratic officials are acting in a manner more consistent with totalitarian and demagogic leaders than with the Founders of the U.S. and national leaders of the Democratic Party.

A city that allows corporate and government propaganda to be presented – but suppresses the people’s ability to speak and receive facts – seems too much like a fascist state.

That is not what America’s servicemen and servicewomen fought and often died for throughout U.S. history. They believed they were fighting to preserve freedom, including freedom of speech.

In the 1964 case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the U.S. Supreme Court said the nation has a “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.”

By ending free speech in a community, public officials show disrespect and ingratitude for the sacrifices of America’s veterans and others who helped defend the U.S. and its ideals.

Those officials are anything but “public servants.” Their censorship is an affront to America’s founding principles.

In fact, they are supporting America’s enemies. As the journalist and media critic Walter Lippmann wrote: “All [that] the sharpest critics of democracy have alleged is true if there is no steady supply of trustworthy and relevant news. Incompetence and aimlessness, corruption and disloyalty, panic and ultimate disaster must come to any people denied an assured access to the facts.”

The public’s right to freedom of speech – its most important means of access to the facts – must be restored in Columbus.

[Some of the information in this article is from the book Tragedy & Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy, by John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney (New York: The New Press, 2005).]