Twisted Cable in Harford

February 09, 1994

The role of Harford County's community-access cable television channel has long been a question mark. It airs tapes of public meetings, such as County Council sessions, and fills the rest of its day with cultural and instructional programs.

Harford Cable Network is a shoestring operation, run out of Harford Community College, and fills the minimal cable franchise requirement to offer a public channel. Hardly the stuff of controversy -- until now, an election year.

Censorship, political manipulation, abuse of a public medium -- these are the charges being tossed at the channel after County Executive Eileen Rehrmann's staff took out remarks critical of her from a tape of a public meeting shown on Channel 3, then pulled the tape to prevent its scheduled repeat airing.

The forum was Mrs. Rehrmann's public speak-out (her term) appearance Jan. 25, one in a series of meetings she has held to elicit comment and answer questions. This time, her meeting drew some barbs from political opponents, which the experienced politician could have expected.

When the tape aired, some criticism was cut out by her information chief, who then retrieved the tape to prevent its re-airing. George Harrison, the adviser, said he did it because the video ran too long for the time slot, because the public was supposed to ask questions (and not speak out) and because the critics had "a political agenda."

The response to Mr. Harrison's excuses are obvious: If the county executive is going to use the public channel to promote her image and campaign, she ought to be able to deal with the political heat and let the tape run. This post-production pique provokes far more public concern, mostly from people who never saw the tape, than the comments made at the meeting by her critics.

The controversy also underscores the fact that Channel 3 allows far too much self-serving promotion by politicians as it is. The channel needs to rethink its public mission and guidelines.

One immediate improvement would be to broadcast a real-time morning bulletin board about county events, not day-old listings. That should include updates on weather closings and delays, especially for county schools.

A weekly program on school events and education issues is also in demand, according to the school system's recent public survey. That's the kind of cable programming that serves the public need, information for use -- not abuse.

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