MPT draws fire over Spanish programs

Issue is connected to controversy over immigration

May 26, 2007|By Kelly Brewington and John Fritze | Kelly Brewington and John Fritze,Sun reporters

A new Maryland Public Television station to be launched this summer that will offer programming entirely in Spanish is drawing criticism from some who question why the organization, which receives public money, is catering to an individual ethnic group.

The 24-hour Spanish network, called V-me, airs programs in about 20 markets and is set to debut in Maryland in August.

But critics have questioned the process that MPT used to offer the programming and also its cost. The discussion, which has taken place largely on talk radio, has been tied by some to the broader national debate over immigration.

"If we're going to do an ethnic station, why not an African-American station? Why not children's programming?" asked Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a Baltimore County Republican who is among the most vocal critics of the new station. "I am going to look more deeply into their process of decision making."

After the initial uproar on talk radio, MPT officials released documents yesterday - in response to questions submitted by McDonough - explaining cost and programming decisions.

Announced by MPT earlier this month, V-me, pronounced "veh-meh," will offer yoga tutorials, weeknight news programs and a Spanish version of Sesame Street, called Plaza Sesamo.

The station's executives hope to distinguish the programming from the offerings on commercial Spanish networks, such as Telemundo and Univision, by providing more education content.

MPT officials said that adding the station - one of three digital channels that MPT will launch as part of its transition to a digital lineup - will cost no additional money and that the same equipment used for other MPT programming can be used to broadcast V-me. The programs will be fed via satellite from New York, and no local programming will be produced.

"It costs us nothing," said MPT spokesman Michael Golden. "There is no additional cost to doing this. We are getting all this programming for free."

MPT receives about 35 percent of its funding, or $10.6 million, from the state government. An additional $6.1 million comes from members, and the rest comes from grants, corporate underwriting and the federal government, Golden said.

Critics include former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich and his wife, Kendel, who criticized the channel on their WBAL-AM radio program recently. Some, including McDonough, have suggested that Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration influenced MPT's decision to launch the station - a claim that MPT has strongly denied.

Rob Douglas, who hosts a talk show on WBAL-AM, said he has received angry e-mails in which some listeners draw a correlation between their concern about a Spanish network and their frustration with illegal immigration.

"I think there's no doubt they are connected," Douglas said. "Many people believe that those who are primarily Spanish speakers often may be illegal aliens as well."

McDonough filed a request under the state's open records law asking MPT for the cost of the digital format of the station, proof of a contract between MPT and the network's producers and a detailed timeline explaining how MPT made the decision to add the channel.

In the three-page response this week to McDonough that was released yesterday to The Sun, MPT President and Chief Executive Officer Robert J. Shuman wrote that "there are no direct costs related to the maintenance, production or servicing" of the new network.

McDonough said yesterday that he felt MPT had made a good-faith effort to respond but he expected to introduce legislation in the General Assembly this year that would require MPT to make similar decisions about launching new stations in public meetings. Another bill, he said, will require MPT to consider the financial ramifications of its decisions.

MPT officials said adding the network is a recognition of the state's growing diversity and will provide an opportunity for English speakers to learn Spanish. Although relatively small, Maryland's Hispanic population has surged in recent years. It increased 41.5 percent between 2000 and 2005, a larger growth rate than any other ethnic group, according to U.S. Census estimates.

Louis DeSipio, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine and an expert on immigrant studies, said that while there has been little debate nationally over the V-me network, controversy over language - and concern about foreign languages supplanting English - is nothing new.

"There's a lot of concern in the American public that English is losing its dominance, though there's no evidence to back that up," DeSipio said. "It's absolutely clear that immigrants from Latin America do speak Spanish, but it's also clear that their children, raised in the United States, lose that Spanish."

Haydee Rodriguez, executive director of the Governor's Commission on Hispanic Affairs, said such complaints are based on false information and are divisive.

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