Dubious promises of lower cable bills could pull plug on public access

by Mark R. Smith, Grand Rapids Press

Two recent columns in the Grand Rapids Press, Nancy Crawley's "Other states see big picture on cable" (Sept. 3) and Cal Thomas' "Gore right to indict media" (Sept. 4) should cause readers a great deal of concern.

As reported by Ms. Crawley, state House member Mike Nofs, R-Battle Creek, intends to introduce cable deregulation bills to ease various phone companies' entrance into the business of delivering movies and other forms of media to consumers. The stated goal of the legislation is to lower cable bills through competition.

So why would lower cable bills be a problem?

The answer lies in the fact that the lower monthly bills will, in part, be produced by the elimination or significant reduction of the fees cable companies pay to run cable through the public right of way to reach your home. These fees are used in many communities to fund Public, Educational and Governmental ("PEG") channels. These are the channels that broadcast local sporting events, church activities, local musical or artistic performances, local political debates, speeches and the like.

Most such programs are produced at Public Media Centers (like Grand Rapid's internationally recognized Community Media Center) where ordinary citizens learn how to use media tools to put together the programs.

Without the funding many Community Media Centers could not sustain their operations and few PEG programs would reach the air.

So what, you say, there's plenty on TV. Well, not really. Not if you're looking for information rather than entertainment. If you are looking for information your choices are limited.

In 1986, the Reagan administration eliminated the Fairness Doctrine which required that both sides of given issues be given an opportunity to be heard on commercial broadcasts. Since most people get their news through the television and radio, the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine eliminated most people's access to the pesky "hey wait a minute folks" who don't follow the majority point of view of the day or have the funds to buy lots of advertising.

The elimination of the Fairness Doctrine in the broadcast media was followed by massive deregulation of the broadcast and media industries which has lead to consolidation of ownership of radio, television and newspapers to the point where a few companies now control virtually all of the information that reaches the average citizen.

Here's where Cal Thomas' column enters the picture. Critical thinkers on both ends of the political spectrum have grave reservations about this consolidation. Thomas, a staunch conservative has gone so far as to support Al Gore's belief that democracy is under attack because consolidation of the media has eliminated conversation about ideas in favor of bought and paid for viewpoints and simple entertainment.

As noted by Gore, and echoed by Thomas, corporate media is no longer a watchdog of true debate about competing ideas. Instead, corporate media follow the all-important profit. The result is that we are fed mindless gossip (Brad and Angelina anyone?) and our political decisions are dictated in large part by who has the most money to run the most ads. One only has to look at the Michigan gubernatorial campaign to see how this rolls out right here at home.

A citizen's right to be heard is a fundamental part of what makes our society great and must be protected. How do we do that? An immediate solution is to preserve what little opportunity for public discourse we still have by urging our elected officials to oppose the franchise fee cuts built into the pending cable deregulation legislation.

Preservation of the current franchise fee provides the funding to make sure we all have a means of making our voices heard. While the franchise fees undoubtedly cost consumers of cable products some amount, the fees preserve citizens' access to community media which by law cannot censor views.

Everyone with a viewpoint can grab some camera or radio time and reach his or her fellow citizens. We deserve that opportunity in a democracy that is forged on the anvil of free speech.

Cheaper cable fees allowing us to be fed the consolidated media's limited viewpoints and to be captive to yet another chapter of the JonBenet Ramsey murder is a false savings when it comes at the risk of eliminating one of the few opportunities for average citizens to be heard.

article originally published at http://www.mlive.com/news/grpress/index.ssf?/base/news-0/11577828836170.xml&coll....

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey