Progressives out of touch on public access television

by Mary Cardona, Capital Times

I was at the Fighting Bob Fest kickoff benefit Friday night at the Barrymore Theatre. The theme was "Hold the Media Accountable."

In the best progressive tradition, one speaker after another rose to talk about the failures of the concentrated corporate media industry, from local broadcast stations that use corporate video press releases and pass them off as objective news segments to the abysmal way American media fell into lock step with the drums of war.

However, throughout the evening, I felt increasingly uncomfortable. On the right and left aisles and in the balcony digital video cameras whirred, capturing every moment of this event. Not one mention was made of them.

Who was it?

WYOU - the public access cable television station in Madison. Or, would it be more appropriate to say, a member of the public certified to use the video equipment of the public access station.

The entire lineup will be seen in a matter of days - uncut and unedited - on WYOU cable Channel 4. Cable 4 sits on a piece of 6 MHz real estate right next to NBC on cable Channel 5. Nobody thought this was important enough to even mention Friday night.

Perhaps it's the fault of public access coordinators, who work long hours day in and day out to manage first-come, first-serve, nondiscriminatory access to the electronic media.

A public access coordinator's job is to have the means available for others to speak locally over television to the cable television community, which now averages 68 percent of American households. A public access coordinator's job is to welcome all comers, from Boy Scouts to progressives.

Like progressives from the time of La Follette, progressives today are fighting important battles and gaining some ground against those who would allow even greater concentration of a media that has already narrowed news to a harrowing extent and cowed journalists as stellar as Dan Rather from asking the tough questions for fear of recrimination or worse.

Progressives have joined forces to sound the alarm against telecommunications corporations that seek to turn the Internet into a two-tiered system of travel - superhighways for corporate paying customers and dirt roads for the rest of us.

But while progressives are trying to hold corporate media accountable, they are, for reasons unfathomable to me, ignoring the toehold in cable television progressives fought for and got in the 1970s with public access channels.

Perhaps progressives don't realize the number of channels like this there are across the country, including nearly 40 in Wisconsin alone.

Perhaps progressives, like pretty much all Americans, want their media made for them, not by them.

But if progressives want to win, they would be wise to use every tool available, including holding themselves accountable for making their own television.

They say you don't know what you've got till it's gone. HR 5252, now being considered in the Senate, severely damages the ability of local governments to gain appropriate support for public, education and government access channels in their communities. It's the same bill that progressives are fighting because of its lack of adequate net neutrality language.

However, while public, education and government access advocates are working hard to save these channels, net neutrality advocates barely give them mention. I just don't get it.

As we continue this ongoing battle for information, progressives need to get the word out in every way possible - including using those public access channels that are found in every middle-size to major city in the country and many, many small towns.

And if you're a progressive reading this now and finding yourself wondering why you haven't thought much about public access television, think about this: Who has been debunking public access television all these years? The corporate media.

Mary Cardona is the executive director of the Wisconsin Association of PEG Access Channels.

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