What Role for Government TV in Community Life?
by Jeffrey P. Jones — Old Dominion University
February 29, 2008 – 04:01
As newspapers (the traditional media outlet that has sustained local civic life) slowly die, the following question seems ever more pressing—is it possible for citizens to know their local community through television? If the defining voice of a local community is that which is offered by the news programs of local broadcasters, then most citizens see a dark and bizarre world, one they may neither recognize nor want to inhabit. The one place I have found that comes close to serving a communitarian function for local television are government access channels on local cable.
Elsewhere I have extolled some of the better programming I have found on local government channels across the U.S., programming that features meaningful political, cultural, and social issues, employing creative narrative approaches and using high-quality aesthetics (http://flowtv.org/?p=532). Here I want to offer the opposite—programming that is little more than the government’s position on an issue (what some might call government “propaganda”). In this segment, the local interview show is essentially turned over to the city economic development department to make its case for public funding of private development and redevelopment projects. This interview program allows the department to air a lengthy and horribly acted video that supposedly shows the viewer the positive things that come from city participation in public-private development projects while addressing common myths and frequent objections. The show ends with an interview of the department’s director, yet includes no serious questions that might critique the failures of these approaches.
The question I have for readers is so what? Even through this one-sided presentation that offers citizens nothing in the way of meaningful critique, is it nevertheless important that citizens actually have an opportunity through television to engage with the city’s position? As scholars it is easy for us to see the glass half-empty as well as to distrust power. But do we also trust viewers enough to believe that they won’t always be duped by one-sided appeals? Does hearing the city’s side of the issue still help us as citizens—at least as compared to that which is provided by local TV news (which is typically nothing)? Or as citizens—that is, the people our local governments supposedly represent—should we demand that such government access channels provide alternative points of view on such issues (seeing that far fewer communities have public access channels)? What role for government TV in community life, even if the presentations are biased?
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