Soundings : MVTV's unblinking eye
Last week's account of what Times writer Janet Hefler describes as a "stormy" Sept. 18 meeting of the Martha's Vineyard Commission is one more reminder that Martha's Vineyard Community Television is subtly changing the dynamics of both politics and journalism here.
At the outset, Ms. Hefler notes that she's reporting on the Martha's Vineyard Commission meeting "as recorded by MVTV, the local government access station." That Sept. 18 meeting wasn't attended by reporters, because it was expected to be the routine sign-off on a previous decision.
Time was, if you missed a meeting where some unexpected drama blew up, your paper was out of luck. Now you can sit down with the tape. That's huge, but it's only one of the ways in which MVTV is changing the game.
Steve Warriner of Edgartown, MVTV's station manager since June of 2002, explains that our community television station is what's called a PEG service, its three channels presenting public programs, educational shows and government meetings. On channel 15, MVTV presents coverage of all six boards of selectmen, plus (deep breath here) meetings of the Martha's Vineyard Commission, the regional high school and all-Island school committees, the county and airport commissioners, the annual and special town meetings for every Island town, as well as meetings of the Steamship Authority, the Vineyard refuse district and many more.
If you gave yourself a 40-hour work week and sat down to watch all the government coverage that MVTV screens in a year, you'd need a comfy chair and lots of popcorn - you'd be at it for five months.
Mr. Warriner says that over the years, members of the public and reporters from both Island newspapers have dropped by to review recordings of specific meetings. Folks can also go online to mvtv.org and check the schedule to see if a meeting is in the program rotation - and if it isn't, they can call and ask that it be dropped in. MVTV can usually accommodate these requests.
Mr. Warriner recalls that in the early years of MVTV, there was some resistance to cameras at public meetings. For a while, there was a self-conscious quality to meetings when people knew their remarks would be broadcast. "But generally speaking," he says, "now we're more apt to hear people being mad at us when we don't show up for one reason or another than when we do. Now it's like, 'Where were you?'
"For the person who comes in for their once-in-a-lifetime speech to the selectmen, it might still be a bit intimidating, but people are used to the cameras now, especially the people who face them all the time."
By law in Massachusetts, you have an absolute right to bring a recording device to any public meeting. So if you pay MVTV's $25 membership fee, take their free training, check out some equipment and record, say, your local library trustees, Mr. Warriner says you're welcome to do so - and if you follow the station's rules, he'll air it on channel 15.
For government programming, Mr. Warriner says, the rules are simple: coverage has to be complete, gavel-to-gavel; editing is not allowed, nor is any commentary; and "no picking on anybody, like zooming in at you when you're picking your nose." If you want to put your personal spin on a public meeting, you can do that, but your program will be aired on 13, the public access channel.
For Vineyard citizens, this all means you don't have to go out on a rainy night to catch the high school committee at its work. For members of the committee, it means citizens across Martha's Vineyard get multiple chances to see their discussions and decisions.
MVTV coverage helps keep public officials accountable, and it does the same for the press. Time was, a reporter could scribble down a quote, publish it in the paper and stand by it if challenged. Now, the video record is the instant replay of Vineyard public life - the tape exposes reportorial inaccuracy as well as it does official silliness.
Time was, you could read contrasting accounts in the two Island newspapers and think, "It's as if they attended two different meetings." Now you can ask the folks at MVTV to cue the tape, watch the meeting for yourself and decide whose story is more accurate.
That's when the tape is audible, of course. Mr. Warriner says, "The sound is our biggest challenge." The two most difficult sound spaces on Martha's Vineyard are the Martha's Vineyard Commission and Cornell Hall, where the Tisbury selectmen meet. "And you know," he says, "the quiet people always seem to sit as far away from the microphones as they possibly can."
One constant side effect of MVTV's coverage, for me, is being reminded what a huge time-saving appliance a well-written newspaper can be. A good newspaper account of a lengthy meeting can leave you well-informed in just a few minutes.
If democracy is a huge bet placed on the notion that more than half the people are right more than half the time, you could say that journalism is, among other things, based on the bet that public officials will behave better when you shine a light on their work than when nobody seems to be looking. MVTV is shining a light, week in and week out, on the public meeting process across Martha's Vineyard. This changes the game in ways that I suspect we're only beginning to appreciate.