Columbus city officials ended public-access TV about 10 years ago after it had existed for decades in Central Ohio. The reason given was lack of funds. In subsequent years, city officials gave the same reason in response to suggestions to restore public-access TV.
But the financial situation has changed. At the urging of city officials, Columbus voters passed a substantial increase in the city income tax in 2009, resulting in the city having millions of dollars of surplus funds. Nevertheless, city officials are still refusing to restore public-access TV.
The officials, including Democratic mayor Michael Coleman and an all-Democratic city council, now say that because of the Internet, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, citizens can communicate by those means and don’t need TV to communicate to the public. Volumes could be written about problems with their position.
For one thing, many historians and legal scholars have written about the Founding Fathers’ support for an open marketplace of ideas, the Founders’ belief that all persons should be able to express views in that marketplace regardless of economic status, and the importance of such a forum for advancing knowledge and improving government.
And as Al Gore did in his 2007 book The Assault on Reason, one could write about TV being by far the most influential communications medium in society, about the dominance of that medium by big-money interests, about the result that societal decisions are often based on power and influence instead of reason, and about the need to restore reason to the decision-making processes by allowing the views of average citizens to be heard on TV.
Likewise, other national Democratic leaders have spoken about television’s dominance by corporate interests and the need to open up the medium to a wider variety of voices. Those leaders include John Kerry, Howard Dean, and Dennis Kucinich. Kerry said diversity of media content is “critical to who we are as a free people. It’s critical to our democracy.”
One could additionally write about the Democratic Party’s history of being on the side of average persons instead of large corporate interests, and how public-access TV gives average persons a chance to balance the views expressed by corporate interests on commercial TV. Because of that history, at least some supporters of Michael Coleman’s 1999 mayoral campaign never dreamed he would end public-access TV, and he expressed no such intent as a candidate.
One could also point out, as was done in a YouTube video made in response to the threatened loss of public-access TV in northern California, that public-access TV is an excellent means for local groups to economically get their messages to the public, for enabling those groups to avoid having their messages distorted by the corporate media’s spin, for providing communications outlets for the views of minority groups in a diverse community, for ensuring that the real issues affecting real people are presented on TV, for enabling important health messages to get to the public, for providing local perspectives on national stories, and for promoting civil rights and social justice.
Moreover, one could write about the high percentage of people who have no Internet access, about that percentage being even higher for the elderly and the poor, and about television being the best method for reaching such people.
The biggest problem with the city’s position, however, is shown by the city’s continued funding and operation of the government channel, on which the mayor, city council, and other city officials repeatedly appear. If city officials really believe that the Internet is more effective than TV in reaching people, they should close down the government channel, use the money saved for street and safety improvements, and rely solely on the Internet to present their messages.
Similarly, during political campaigns, they should not buy political ads for TV but instead transmit their messages to the public through the Internet.
In fact, city officials could urge corporations to save billions of dollars in TV advertising costs by using only the Internet to reach people, so that the savings could be passed on to consumers. City officials could teach corporate advertising executives that the Internet is a far better means of getting messages to a mass audience.
But city officials aren’t doing any of those things. As long as they continue using TV to communicate to the public, they do not appear credible when they say citizens and community groups do not need TV for communicating to the public, and that the Internet is a superior means of doing so.
The actions of city officials speak louder than their words. Instead of promoting an open marketplace of ideas on the most influential communications medium, they are restricting that marketplace by allowing their views and the views of corporate interests to be heard, and excluding the voices of other citizens who might have different views.
It would be nice to hear an explanation from city officials as to why they believe they need to use TV to get their messages to the public, but claim to believe that average citizens do not need public-access TV in order to accomplish the same purpose. So far they have been silent about this inconsistency.
It would be even nicer, though, to hear city officials get on the side of the Founding Fathers, the Democratic Party, and the public interest by restoring public-access TV in Columbus.
[The website for the Columbus Coalition for Responsive Government, which is advocating for a return of public access TV in Central Ohio, is at www.columbuscoalition.info.]