When it comes to local news, public access tells the whole story
Vermont had one of the highest voter turnouts in the country last November - 70 percent went to the polls -- but chances are many people will skip next week's local contests. In 2002, for example, only about 30 percent of registered voters cast a ballot at Town Meeting Day in March.
If you ask around, especially in the bigger towns, you find that most people say they just don't know enough about the candidates, or the arcanely worded ballot questions, to feel qualified to weigh in. One woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, says that for years she didn't even know there were two elections a year. "People talk about the ones in November," she says. "Nobody talks about the ones in March."
They're talking about it less, anyway. A 2004 survey by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that nationwide, 57 percent of reporters, editors, producers and executives think "bottom-line pressure" is hurting local news coverage.
But there are still a few media outlets dedicated to shining a light on local government, no matter how boring or unprofitable that endeavor may be. An example is Burlington-based Channel 17 Town Meeting Television, one of the state's 33 locally controlled cable channels. Executive Director Lauren-Glenn Davitian says that her noncommercial news source plays a vital role in cultivating democracy. "You can't have democracy without informed citizens," she explains, "and you can't have informed citizens if they're relying on the mainstream media."
There's no official list of who belongs to the mainstream media, but the category generally includes daily newspapers, television networks such as NBC, cable channels such as CNN, commercial radio stations and magazines such as Time, all of which claim to provide "objective" news. But Davitian implies that the editing process itself compromises objectivity.
Reporters and editors are filters, after all, selecting compelling quotes and crafting a narrative to explain an issue or event. But given access to the same raw materials, different writers may come to different conclusions. That's why, Davitian suggests, it's important to make the raw materials available to the public. "The more local information that's not edited, the better informed you can be."
Davitian's station offers gavel-to-gavel, unedited coverage of meetings, hearings and various community events. If you live in Burlington, for example, and can't make it to a City Council meeting, you can watch the whole thing on cable TV. Davitian says that information isn't anywhere else.
Not on the local TV news, anyway. Davitian praises Channel 3 for its hourlong newscast, but adds, "The way these programs are edited doesn't really give you the full picture." And oftentimes government meetings are not reported in The Burlington Free Press, the "paper of record." "They used to have a reporter who went to every City Council meeting," Davitian says. And now? "If they do, I don't read about it."
In truth, many of Channel 17's programs, like democracy itself, are unpolished and mind-numbingly dull. But they're worth airing, and watching, because they give viewers an understanding of "how the event has been transformed by the process" of media involvement. A New York Times article -- that hangs on the wall at the North Winooski Avenue office -- pointed that out in a January 2004 article about Howard Dean. After watching 300 hours of tape from his appearances on Channel 17, reporters offered an in-depth, comprehensive moderate portrait that contrasted sharply with characterizations of the candidate in the mainstream press.
The action isn't just in the Channel 17 archives; a debate last week about the future of Burlington's Moran Plant was as gripping as anything on network primetime. Viewers witnessed a back-and-forth that would surely have been truncated in a newspaper report. They heard Burlington attorney Sandy Baird's steely tone as she interrupted Mayor Peter Clavelle, and Clavelle's snarky retort: "We could discuss nuances, and I know that attorneys are good at that," he said.
That exchange might not have been deemed newsworthy by anybody else, but it exposed some of the bitterness that bubbles beneath this waterfront debate. Throughout the show, the switchboard was lit up with incoming calls. Clearly, people were watching.
Davitian suggests that the presence of the cameras makes politicians more "conscious of how they serve the public interest," and may hold the media more accountable as well.
Colchester Select Board member Bob Campbell, who appears regularly on Channel 17, says he doesn't think the cameras change how he behaves at meetings, but he agrees that the station provides a valuable service. Though the channel is not able to measure its viewership, Campbell says he frequently hears comments about his appearances. "A fair number of people" are watching, he suggests, many of them senior citizens who are unable to attend municipal meetings.
Clavelle hears similar feedback. "I'm amazed at the number of people who will comment on a show," he says. "It certainly has its following."
Clavelle also points out that Channel 17 is useful to politicians like himself. "It allows candidates to get their message to the voters without being filtered by corporate media," he says. The station sponsors candidate forums for local offices, during which people running for school board or select board can answer questions from a moderator, and from viewers who call in. In many cases, it's the only time citizens get to see these office-seekers answer direct questions. These local candidates have more control over our money, towns and lives than the presidential candidates that got so much airtime last fall.
CCTV producer and director Jess Wilson says she'd like to do even more local programming. Last month, she debuted "Under the Dome: Lifting the Lid on Vermont's Legislature." Channel 17's new hourlong legislative digest is edited -- Wilson hopes the highlights version will drive viewers toward the uncut coverage. The show begins with a jaunty theme played over a montage of politicos, including Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, Progressive Rep. David Zuckerman, Democratic House Speaker Gaye Symington and Seven Days' political columnist Peter Freyne. "Under the Dome" airs Tuesday nights at 6 while the legislature is in session.
That said, Channel 17's schedule changes constantly, and the times don't appear in the daily newspaper or TV Guide. Show times appear every half-hour on the screen, though, and on the website at http://www.cctv.org. Otherwise, if you want to see a specific program, you can call the station, located on North Winooski Avenue in Burlington. "If you missed it," says Davitian, "we will figure out a way to get you to see it."
Though Channel 17 seems like a logical and necessary public service, its funding situation is precarious. The station operates on mandatory fees from cable companies and their subscribers -- payment for the privilege of running their cables across public land. The telecommunications regulatory structure currently requires that cable companies in Vermont spend 5 percent of their subscriber fees on the creation of Public Access, Educational Access and Governmental Access channels, supporting Channel 15, Channel 16 and Channel 17, respectively.
But newer technologies, such as satellite TV, are not bound by these same requirements -- that's why you can't get Channel 17 on satellite. As a result, cable companies have begun arguing that the fees they pay for public-access channels are stifling their ability to compete.
Davitian expects this debate will heat up over the next few years, and she's worried about how the station will survive. "It's a pretty big thing," she says. "We'd be doing telethons, trying to get grants. It would not be as robust a service as it is today. . . People really need to understand that their access to these services is at risk."
Jess Wilson agrees. Moments before she steps in front of the Channel 17 cameras to moderate a Thursday-night Burlington school-board candidate forum, she offers a grim assessment of the station's future, which she believes is under attack by the same commercial forces that have been shrinking local news coverage for years. "This could be a thing of the past," she warns, "if people don't stand up and say, 'This is important.'"