Wiseman wins converts on Houston MediaSource controversy

The Chronicle's Matt Stiles reports that Houston MediaSource, the organization that came under fire from Councilmember Addie Wiseman a little over a week ago for allegedly running obscene/vulgar programming on a public access channel, now is coming under additional fire:

Until now, the battle over Houston MediaSource's programming largely has been waged on a limited front: the public-access channel's supporters against City Councilwoman Addie Wiseman.

Funny how airing nudity can change that.

Several council members who'd been ambivalent about the issue now say they can't support the channel's $800,000 contract with the city after a show featuring nude women aired Wednesday night.

"This absolutely has changed the dynamic of this whole debate," said Councilman Michael Berry, who said he now would vote against renewing the channel's contract. "This is no longer a free-speech-versus-censorship issue. This is about basic accountability and people who have no business putting on public programming."

The show in question, which KRIV (Channel 26) taped off the MediaSource channel, aired about 11 p.m. Wednesday after almost 20 supporters appeared before the City Council to defend the channel against Wiseman's complaints of raunchy late-night programming.

It's also funny how people who were previously supportive of the public access channel airing obscene/vulgar material are now saying something completely different.

Here's Mayor White a few days ago, as reported by KTRK-13's Miya Shay:

All the sniping has left the mayor a little frustrated.

"Has it taken a disproportionate amount of time, particularly by Councilwoman Wiseman?" the mayor asked himself. He answered with a "Yes."

Here's Mayor White, as reported by Matt Stiles at the beginning of the controversy:

After Wiseman raised her concerns Wednesday, city lawyers began reviewing whether guidelines might be allowed, though Mayor Bill White said the city likely wouldn't have much discretion because of the First Amendment.

"Until we solve crime and traffic problems and redevelop every neighborhood, I certainly don't intend to be watching at 3 in the morning and making calls telling them what to put on TV," he said.

Here's Mayor White as reported by Matt Stiles today:

"I don't think that Houston MediaSource should get a contract unless there are some changes that would prevent an abuse," he said.

With that change of attitude complete, Mayor White now owes Councilmember Wiseman an apology.

Here is Councilmember Goldberg, as reported by Stiles at the beginning of the controversy:

Councilman Mark Goldberg ... said his colleagues should see the programming before forming opinions. He and others who voted against the delay cautioned about censorship.

"I don't think we should be about saying, 'OK, we like this program, we don't like this program,' " Goldberg said.

Here is more from Councilmember Goldberg, as reported by KHOU-11's Doug Miller at the beginning of the controversy:

"What this really is a censorship issue," argued Council Member Mark Goldberg.

[snip]

"Election time is coming up in November. There's not enough talk about, you know, the re-election for City Council. And this helps generate some extra talk," said Goldberg.

Here is Councilmember Goldberg, as reported by Stiles today:

Councilman Mark Goldberg, who chairs the committee, said he planned to show the video so his colleagues could see the material for themselves and ask for explanations.

"The purpose of the station is good," he said. "But if they are showing material that is a violation of our laws, we should reconsider whether or not we renew the contract."

With that change of attitude complete, Councilmember Goldberg also owes Councilmember Wiseman an apology.

What this longtime student of American constitutionalism continues to find obscene is the warped view of the First Amendment offered by the director of Houston MediaSource, Pat Garlinghouse. Here is Garlinghouse's contention, as conveyed by the Houston Chronicle editorial board (which apparently shares her erroneous view of the First Amendment):

Houston MediaSource executive director Pat Garlinghouse is a public access channel veteran who received awards for her work at a similar channel in Austin. She says any effort to censor content beyond what constitutes libel or violations of law is prohibited by the agreement between the city and cable operators. Producers sign contracts taking responsibility for the content of their shows, removing liability from the city, cable company and access channel managers.

"It's a First Amendment forum, and nothing can be censored," Garlinghouse stressed. "The FCC doesn't regulate us. Access channels are to be used by the public free and clear of all government intrusion."

Garlinghouse does not attempt prior restraint on producers by viewing and rating their shows in advance.

Prior restraint typically involves a court injunction to stop the publication or airing of certain material. Editorial judgment, on the other hand, involves media entities (like Houston MediaSource) determining whether material meets editorial standards (as set by the entity, or perhaps the city in the instance of a public access channel). When a Chronicle editor spikes a story, it would be nonsensical to call it prior restraint, just as it is nonsensical for Garlinghouse and the Chronicle editorial board to insist that First Amendment prior-restraint issues are in play here. The Chronicle editorial board was notably silent on one such local instance of prior restraint, so perhaps they are simply confused. It wouldn't be the first time.

First Amendment issues are not raised if a municipality simply sets reasonable standards for public access channels and asks those who oversee the content on those channels to enforce those standards. This is the argument that has been advanced from the start of this controversy to varying degrees by Councilmembers Wiseman, Mark Ellis, and Shelley Sekula-Gibbs. Stiles previously reported:

"It's not violating anyone's rights to say, 'We have standards of decency, and they've got to be adhered to,' " [Wiseman] said.

[snip]

Councilman Mark Ellis said that though he's concerned about censorship, he doesn't think the public would support the city financing material that is degrading to women, as Wiseman suggested about the comedy show.

"If we're going to be approving what basically is a tax to flow through to MediaSource, then we need to scrutinize who we are appointing to that board," he said.

Councilwoman Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, who sought the delay based on Wiseman's concerns, said "vulgar" shows have no place on a city-owned channel.

"Free speech is important, but free speech has a limit when it starts to hurt society."

Nothing said by those three councilmembers suggests that they want to trample the First Amendment.

Finally, it's useful to recall the Houston Chronicle editorial board's typically hateful slam against Councilmember Wiseman:

Perhaps Wiseman's comments should be viewed as a routine designed to gather votes and contributions for her re-election campaign this fall.

Perhaps the Chronicle editorial board should also apologize to Councilmember Wiseman, who, at the moment, doesn't even have an opponent for her re-election campaign this fall!

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 07/09/05 03:22 PM | Print |

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