Thursday, November 13, 2008

Bill Mulcahy has good points and bad about Channel 23

Bill Mulcahy wrote a letter about Public Access TV that was published in this week's New Paltz Times. Since Ulster Publishing doesn't keep pages on their website forever (and my email to publisher Geddy Sveikauskas clarify the policy has as yet not been responded to), I'll reproduce it here rather than linking to it:

Channel 23 is mired by 'censorship,' local politics

I was happy to read last week that Don Kerr is "working tirelessly" to end his "tyrannical rule" over our public access channel (Time Warner cable Channel 23) on weekends.

With all of Don's contributions to this community, like his being on the school board and his recent elevation to the chair of the school board's Facilities Committee (which deals with multi-million dollar contracts with construction contractors, engineers and architects), I don't know where he finds time to be the sole programmer of the public access channel on weekends.

Unfortunately, I cannot also praise the way the Public Access TV (PATV) Committee is being run by Don Kerr and his co-chairperson, village representative Andrea Russo.

For the last few years, I have been the main producer of non-governmental videos on Channel 23 and produce the only live public education show ("New Paltz News" - 7 p.m. on Fridays). You would think that would get me some appreciation from the Town Board and PATV committee co-chairpersons for the many public meetings, hearings and live shows that I have videotaped at my own expense.

Just the opposite is true. For example, when I videotaped the recent (Oct. 27) Public Access TV Committee meeting, I was treated with more than the usual hostility by the PATV co-chairpersons. They made a point of making me videotape the meeting from the public seating area. Shortly after the meeting began, Town Board member Kitty Brown ambled in and sat herself directly in front of my camera. She refused to move even after I asked her to. I took this to be a gesture of Kitty's contempt, not only for me, but also for the public who would be viewing the video.

When the public speaking time came around, I tried to ask questions about some public access TV issues. This apparently upset Don Kerr who angrily snarled: "This is public comment time, what is your comment?"

That's funny; I didn't know that the public comment time was supposed to be a one-sided monologue with no response from the committee members. I have also noticed a coolness from Don when I have showed up to videotape the school board's Facility Committee meetings. I would think that as PATV Committee co-chairperson Don would be happy for the public to be informed of this committee's activities. In my opinion, he isn't.

At the PATV meeting, Kitty expressed her anger about an excerpt from a town videotape of a New Paltz Police Commission meeting being re-aired. I had been asked to convert Nora Strano's videotape of the public speaking time to a DVD for Channel 23 broadcast.

Kitty's outrage by the airing of a public comment time of a Police Commission meeting once again shows what some of our politicians stand for; and that is secrecy, censorship and control of "public" access TV (and other committees) by them directly and through their politically-appointed cronies.

It's time for a change.

Bill Mulcahy

New Paltz
Bill is legitimately concerned with open meetings and public access television. His willingness to record a meeting for later broadcast truly is a service to the community.

However, I can't agree with everything he has to say.
  • Public Comment. Generally, public meetings have a public comment period. This is a good thing. Some bodies, such as the Town Council, allow some leeway in this period, and will actually engage in a dialog with citizens that are commenting. This is not the norm, and it is not required. Such dialog could be disruptive to the flow of the meeting, making a long night unbearably longer for those elected officials or volunteers that are required to be there. Bill admits, and I can confirm, that he attempts to engage in such dialog without first determining if it's appropriate.
  • Role of the cameraman. By volunteering to record a meeting, one has accepted the role of silent witness to the proceedings. Having a disembodied voice issue from behind the camera can be disorienting to the viewer, and having the camera spin around to give an extreme closeup of the cameraman can be downright disturbing. I would argue that a cameraman waives his or her right to even participate in public comment. Moreover, the cameraman is not a de facto participant in the proceedings themselves, and should exercise restraint when the urge to comment or ask questions manifests. Generally it is journalists who seeks such comment; those that bring along a camera arrange for someone else to operate it.
  • Placement of Camera. If a meeting is not planned with a camera in mind, it can be difficult to find a place for it. A camera at the table must be turned to view each speaker, which can cause motion sickness in certain highly sensitive people that also own extremely large television sets. On the other hand, smaller cameras like most hobbyists own don't have the sound system to record at a great distance. Ultimately, the operator of the equipment should be willing to build bridges with the meeting's facilitators so the best location for all concerned can be selected.
I don't know much about the circumstances of airing sections of public comment from a public meeting, and I haven't seen the footage of Kitty "expressing outrage," but certainly Bill is correct that if a meeting is public, there's no reason to prevent its being recorded and broadcast.

I hope Bill continues to film public events, but I can understand if he's getting a frosty reception from time to time. There is a balance between recording the action and being part of it.

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