Harriet Lloyd: Capitol TV Needs a Haircut
Thursday, October 18, 2012
In a recent Providence Journal interview, John Marion, Executive Director of Common Cause, stated the concern of his organization over the use of Capitol TV for partisan political purposes. He put his finger squarely on a taxpayer supported program that has been utilized to serve the purposes of the General Assembly (GA) leadership. At a time when the state is hard pressed to meet its financial obligations, the question arises: is Capitol TV the poster child for a program that should be terminated, or should it be re-evaluated to determine whether it should be continued or re-formatted to serve a less costly, non-partisan, informational purpose?
Another “only-in-Rhode Island statute?”
The Rhode Island Statewide Coalition (RISC) applauds Common Cause for calling attention to a practice which serves the interests of one political party. In calling for an end to the patently unequal, unfair utilization of Capitol TV by the GA leadership, the Common Cause concern has raised other questions that should be answered to the satisfaction of the taxpayer.
What is the purpose of Capitol TV? Is it a major source of transparency? Does it provide a service that is not otherwise available to the taxpayer? Is it non-partisan? Is it a source of civic education not available elsewhere?
The Capitol TV operation employs 15 people at an annual cost to the taxpayers of $1.6 million. A creature of the legislative leadership controlled Committee on Joint Legislative Services (JCLS), it represents 4% of the total part-time General Assembly budget of $38 million.
The mission of Capitol TV appears to be whatever the GA leadership determines. To the extent that it provides some transparency to hearings and legislative sessions, RISC is supportive. We believe that full, open transparency would be served by the televising of all legislative hearings and sessions, without comment and interpretation. In this age of technical capability, every room in the State House should be equipped to provide live TV transmission.
Beyond televising legislative hearings and sessions, the need for additional interviews and special programs becomes questionable. The State House is well covered by the state’s principal TV and print outlets, and there exist a number of private sector visual and print interview programs, each eager to present opposing viewpoints. The interviews on Capitol TV are softly moderated sessions, involve only one interviewee, and are staged to present a non-threatening, favorable impression of the legislator being interviewed. Such interviews serve little, if any, public educational purpose.
Certainly, every effort ought to be made to assure that Capitol TV is non-partisan and that legislators of all parties are represented in whatever programs are undertaken. It would also be helpful if educational programs relating to civics and the manner in which local and state government operate were aired. Such programs are beyond the financial and programming realities of private sector visual and print media. They are critically needed. In a state with a host of excellent colleges and universities it ought to be possible to arrange such programming, featuring outstanding teacher-commentators.
Common Cause has called attention to a serious misuse of a taxpayer funded program. Its plea for a correction is in the public interest and should be heeded
By the same token, a re-evaluation of Capitol TV is long past due. It’s time we found out what it can do and at what cost to the taxpayer? If it can be a sound investment in educating the citizen, promoting greater awareness of and participation in government at an acceptable cost to the taxpayer, more power to it. If, however, it is to remain a bland, one-party dominated mouthpiece for special interest purposes, let’s consider relieving the taxpayer of its cost.