Upon Review, Maybe Canceling TV Coverage of Important Assembly Hearings Isn’t a Great Idea

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

High-profile hearings in the state Senate routinely receive television coverage, and the one scheduled for last week on controversial tax-related initiatives appearing on November’s ballot was to be no exception.

And then Senate President Pro Tem Darryl Steinberg pulled the plug.

The California Channel, a cable service that regularly televises hearings and other public affairs shows, got a last-minute call canceling the scheduled coverage. Afterward, Steinberg spokesman Rhys Williams expressed fear that the hearing on Propositions 30, 31, 38 and 39 would turn into a political grandstanding, media circus and mentioned the likelihood that footage from the hearing would be used in political advertisements.

The initiatives included Governor Jerry Brown’s controversial proposal to raise the sales tax a quarter percent and increase income taxes on high earners, and Molly Munger’s income tax proposal that would raise $10 billion a year for education.

Critics said Steinberg wasn’t as worried about the debate over the initiatives as much as he was concerned that conservatives would make a big deal over the recent embarrassing revelation that legislative staff members were given raises while most public employees were taking pay cuts as a result of the state’s budget crisis.

And, in fact, Jon Coupal of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association did bring the issue up when arguing against Governor Brown’s Prop. 30.

Peter Scheer, executive director at the First Amendment Coalition, was not happy with the cancellation. “We count on the press to tell us what we missed, but they can't if it's cut off,” he said. “The only possible justification for ever turning off that video feed would be for security concerns of a very strong kind.”

Expressions of dismay weren’t limited to the press and outside interested parties. Democratic Senator Lois Wolk, chairwoman of the Senate Governance and Finance Committee holding the hearing, condemned Steinberg’s action. “I strongly disagree with the decision, as the hearing was held to fulfill a state-mandated discussion on the initiatives so as to inform the public.”

After a week of withering criticism, Steinberg apologized for cutting off TV coverage and promised it wouldn’t happen again. “The rationale was that (I) didn't want the hearing to become political fodder because it involves the initiatives. It was a screw-up,” he said. “I pride myself on transparency.”

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Senate Leader Steinberg Issues Mea Culpa over Canceling Telecast of Hearings on Ballot Measure (by Steve Harmon, Bay Area News Group)

State Senate Leader Apologizes for TV Blackout (by Judy Lin, Associated Press)

Steinberg Apologizes for Blackout of Ballot Measure Hearing (by Dan Walters, Sacramento Bee)

Senate Kills Live Feed of Ballot Measure Hearing (by Hannah Dreier, Associated Press)

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