OP-ED | The Spirit Of CT-N & Why We Shouldn’t Have Faith In The CGA’s Ability To Nurture It
As many now know, the project conceived and implemented over the past 18 years to educate the residents of Connecticut about their state government was unceremoniously laid to rest at 5 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 3.
There were no calling hours, and little opportunity to mourn.
The staffers at Connecticut Network who worked daily to carry out its mission knew major changes were on the horizon. We, after all, are the ones who spent literally hundreds of hours this year providing coverage of the state’s budget turmoil. And the Office of Legislative Management’s blunt wording, in a request put out last spring for bids on a new contract, made abundantly clear its intentions for severe reductions in the services we offer.
Still, the swift ignominy of our company’s demise has left us stunned. In a relatively short window of time, we went from being what we thought (perhaps foolishly) was at least somewhat of a State Capitol institution — one certainly subject to the realities of budget cutbacks but also seemingly appreciated for the unbiased view we gave into the working of state government — to being entirely expendable.
I am not a manager at CT-N and I am not writing this with the consent or knowledge of anyone other than myself. These are my thoughts alone on the value of our organization and why it should not be entrusted to a deeply partisan legislature wrestling over who will control it after the 2018 election.
Open government is a concept many take for granted, and rarely fully realized. Unedited coverage of our public servants is not a benefit all states enjoy.
At CT-N, the heroes of open government include our camera technicians who reacted accordingly when applicants seeking erasure of their criminal records were mistakenly told it was their choice whether or not to appear on camera. (Pardons Board hearings are the public’s business, according to the Freedom of Information Commission.)
They include our assignment manager who, in the nicest way possible, told groups that, if they were holding a public meeting or hosting an event in a public building, forbidding us from recording was not an option.
They include our closed caption team that worked diligently to ensure everyone the chance to keep tabs on those they helped elect into office.
Nothing is black and white. And to say the fate of CT-N is completely due to legislative thirst for the cameras to be fixed solely on them wouldn’t be accurate. But it is reasonable for the public to assume it played a big role in what’s happened.
Until Friday, the legislature was the vehicle through which dollars from cable television subscribers went to fund CT-N coverage (under contract by the independently operated nonprofit Connecticut Public Affairs Network, for which we worked) of the three branches of state government, and groups as politically diverse as the Yankee Institute for Public Policy, the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, the AFL-CIO, and Voices for Children. We didn’t pick and choose what to cover based on our own personal viewpoints. Rather we operated under a philosophy that, as a publicly funded network, we had an obligation to present as many different opinions as possible to our viewers. That Democrats sometimes wound up on our airwaves more than Republicans only reflects which party currently holds more public offices in state government, and therefore hosts a larger share of public events.
The funding mechanism set up for CT-N made more sense back when former Gov. John G. Rowland was actively pursuing our dismantling, but less sense today. Under it, the legislature as the holder of our purse strings got vastly more attention than the Executive and Judicial branches, despite their equal importance under the state constitution.
To hear some legislators bemoan their lack of being covered begs the question of whether they even bothered to assess the totality of our work product. Very rarely did we cover a judicial or executive branch proceeding at the expense of a legislative one. When we passed on legislative events, it was usually because we felt there were more important legislative events happening at the same time. (The equipment in our control room is only capable of recording up to three shows at once, and when we did that, our aging technology was at risk of a breakdown.)
As owner of the CT-N signal and website, the legislature is now working to keep some semblance of the operation alive. It’s uncertain, however, whether its plan envisions coverage of the courts or the many boards and commissions within the executive branch, many of which would have gone largely ignored without our camera crews being present.
From a purely practical standpoint, legislative-only coverage would be a fairly ridiculous venture, as the legislature is mostly a seasonal undertaking. With the state budget now in place, the number of events taking place inside the LOB between now and two weeks before the start of the 2018 session will be slim pickings, hardly enough to fill a 24/7 playlist without the ever continuous looping of the same shows.
From an open government perspective, it would be a complete disservice to both the public, and the officials and boards toiling outside the limelight of the dedicated but whittled down state press corps. CT-N provided insight into the Board of Firearm Permit Examiners, Psychiatric Security Review Board, and many others, and showed the exhaustive deliberations they make to meet their critical, if unappreciated functions.
Some of those commenting online about CT-N’s funding battle have suggested that its legislative coverage is only what the legislators wanted the public to see, and that the real decisions are still being made behind closed doors. Mostly, I don’t disagree. Rare were the times in my nine years of watching lawmakers (sometimes well past midnight) when I felt decisions were truly being influenced on the fly during floor debates or public hearings.
Still there is value in being able to go online and quote precisely what a public official said in a previous debate or press conference, particularly in this day of selective memory or outright denial by those in charge of our government.
Could CT-N have been better? Most definitely, particularly in soliciting the public’s input on our programming decisions, and putting more average citizens on our advisory board. Frankly, we covered a lot of dull meetings and didn’t care enough about how many people were watching them. Our inside reference for shows like that was “summer programming.”
But the scope of CT-N coverage and summer programming only stand to get worse in the hands of legislators seeking re-election.
None of this is to say that most state legislators aren’t working toward the public good. CT-N showed that. Our viewers witnessed the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Will the legislature offer us the same insight when its members are attempting to craft their re-election messages? The integrity of publicly financed coverage of state government should not be allowed to become secondary to the goal of supporting their campaign materials.
Don’t leave it to others to champion open government. There should be more of it, not less.
Scott Brede had been a producer at Connecticut Network since 2008. The Connecticut Public Affairs Network was previously included among the sponsors of this website.
DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.