One of the more popular terms at all levels of government is “transparency.” How do we ensure that our government is transparent? What does it take to achieve transparency? Can we ever have complete transparency?
It seems that every federal and state agency is engaged in discussions about transparency, or launching a web site to demonstrate its commitment to transparency. Meanwhile, it also seems that every day we are faced with a news story about some secret program or other significant information that was withheld from the public.
For nearly 50 years, Public, Educational and Government (PEG) access television has been delivering local government and institutional transparency. PEG access television was a transparent portal for information long before the topic became fashionable. There’s nothing more transparent than having a video camera pointed your way as you do the people’s business, and for some leaders that indelible video record ends up being their claim to fame or their ride to ignominy.
I’ve had council or school board members tell me stories of being stopped in a grocery store by constituents who were happy or displeased with what they said or how votes were cast the evening before. Just a week before I’m writing this, a mayor of a small town said he wasn’t sure he wanted town meetings to be taped and put on the PEG channel.
“We have a councilman who’s a grandstander,” he said.
“Then by all means get cameras in there because people will see it,” I replied.
SCHOOL BOARD MEETINGS
A highly placed Capitol Hill staffer told me she supports PEG access television because that’s how she gets to watch school board meetings.
“I don’t have time to leave Capitol Hill and go to school board meetings, but I want to keep up with what they’re doing so I usually will watch the meetings while making dinner,” she said.
It’s not just meetings that get delivered unhindered to the viewing public. Often it’s on PEG channels where we meet critical stakeholders in our community, such as police and fire chiefs, comptrollers, college and hospital presidents, school board chairpersons, senior services directors and others whose jobs are to improve the health, safety and cultural qualities of our communities.
Then there are the “issues” that get discussed. As someone who has looked at hundreds of programming schedules, one of the things I am always impressed by is how hyper-local and different programming is from community to community.
As you might imagine, communities in the desert Southwest often have programs about water usage and conservation. Communities in the upper Midwest will have shows about furnace safety or snow removal. East Coast channels will highlight issues pertaining to interstate transportation and new traffic patterns at roundabouts, while West Coast channels often carry Port Authority discussions.
Through it all, chambers of commerce, or the League of Women Voters, or senior- or child-advocacy organizations are weighing in with comments to represent their communities. All the programming is geared toward educating the public and improving the livability of our communities.
In addition to bringing local government activities into our living rooms, PEG access television also gives the public an opportunity to openly debate government’s behavior at a level far beyond just a letter to the editor or a posting on a blog. I’m reminded of the town in Texas that shut down the public access channel because of a weekly show that criticized town leaders―obviously, the amateurishly produced 30-minute weekly show was viewed as a threat to those town leaders.
Needless to say, a court ruled that the prohibition violated the First Amendment and forced the town fathers to re-instate the channel.
In 1984, Congress passed the Cable Act and codified PEG access television into federal law, and clearly expressed its purpose for doing so. The legislative history, in part, states:
“PEG channels also contribute to an informed citizenry by bringing local schools into the home, and by showing the public local government at work.”
At American Community Television, we advocate for all parts of Public, Educational and Government access television. Although we are often out-maneuvered and certainly out-spent by the industry in our advocacy efforts, there is no denying that PEG delivers what no other television medium can or will deliver.
Transparent and open connections between citizens and their local communities are critical components of healthy and well-managed government, just as the authors of the Cable Act intended it should be.
Bunnie Riedel is the executive director of American Community Television, a PEG access television advocacy organization. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.