Staff -- Broadcasting & Cable, 12/3/2000 7:00:00 PM
Turning a blind eye
Thanks to the Florida government's refreshing openness to electronic journalism, viewers have gotten a general's-eye-view of that state's ongoing election fight-the warring parties exchanging legal volleys, the ballots whizzing by. We got to watch not only recounts and protests, but also the in-court battles that may yet determine the people's government. But when that fight moved to the highest court in the land, the American people were left in the dark, except for the few camped out in the cold overnight for a seat in the courtroom (some only to be rotated in for a few minutes at a time). And the lawyers, of course.
As we enter the 21st century, the Supreme Court remains in the 19th, refusing a real-time transmission of the arguments as sought by many in the media, or even a taping to preserve historic moments for posterity, as requested by The History Channel.
Long ago, video technology reached the point where its court presence is unobtrusive. If events get out of hand, it is from human failing, not the failure of technology. And the principal criticism of trial-court TV coverage-that it could adversely affect jurors or witnesses-certainly doesn't apply in appellate court cases like those heard at the nation's highest court.
The American people have been witness to extraordinary events since the advent of television, from the Army-McCarthy hearings to the moon walk to Watergate to the Clinton impeachment hearings. And then there were the confirmation hearings of a certain Clarence Thomas, who now sits on the same court that locks out most of the public.
Advocacy groups such as the Radio-Television News Directors Association and Society of Professional Journalists said last week that they appreciated the expedited audiotape of the proceedings that the court agreed to provide. So did we. It made for fascinating stuff last week and whetted our appetites for more. But they were just as quick to suggest that is only a first step. We certainly agree. That this expedited audiotape is considered a concession shows just how out of touch the court truly is.
We learned from one of the justices that they wish to protect their own anonymity (a little late for Rehnquist, Thomas and O'Connor). We find it hard to believe that intelligent, indeed brilliant, men and women could expect to occupy such a position of power and importance without having to withstand the spotlight that goes with it in this mass-media-driven world. We also find it hard to believe that these same men and women, supposedly committed to public service, would put their own interests above those of the American people. That's the wrong decision.
In opening up the DBS band to terrestrial competition, the FCC last week paved the way for a new competitor (DBT?) to cable, laying the groundwork for price and service wars that would undoubtedly benefit viewers. Perhaps a few decades hence, we will be looking back at this time as cable now nostalgically recalls the days of wiring hilly Pennsylvania terrain to sell more newfangled sets down at the hardware store. We say perhaps because there remain obstacles. The DBS industry is, not surprisingly, exercised over the decision, saying that a new service threatens their existing one. If they mean competitively, that's tough. But their interference concerns, like those of noncommercial radio over a new drop-in LPFM service, have to be taken seriously. If a Northpoint or anyone else does not pass an interference test with flying colors or the prospects of doing so before the fact, it should have to strike its flag.
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