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Internationally Famous/What Happened to the Voters' Channel?

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Internationally Famous

We won't accuse the Chicago papers of laying off the Police Department, not after the Sun-Times's series on fatal police chases and the Tribune's front-page story last Sunday introducing Detective Kriston Kato, who's been accused by 25 criminal suspects since 1988 of threatening or beating them during questioning.

Even so, the papers just blew two chances to remind the city of the most notorious stain on the force's reputation. Last week, Amnesty International issued its annual survey of human rights violations around the world. The Tribune carried a Reuters account of the survey, running it alongside an AP story on police brutality in Peru. Though the Sun-Times didn't get around to the survey until this past Monday, the paper devoted an entire page to it. Under a story from the Los Angeles Times was a detailed, region-by-region summary of AI's findings prepared by Agence France-Presse.

What none of these wire stories happened to note is that Amnesty International singled out the Chicago Police Department. It reported recent allegations that between 1972 and 1984 officers at Area Two headquarters on the south side "had systematically tortured or otherwise ill-treated more than 20 people." AI intervened last year, asking the U.S. attorney, the attorney general of Illinois, and the Cook County state's attorney as well as city officials to investigate the matter.

If the Chicago papers had pursued this interesting local angle, they would have written that the focus of those allegations was Jon Burge, who from 1981 to '86 commanded Area Two Violent Crimes and today has risen to commander of detectives in Area Three. The allegations against Burge were examined at great length 18 months ago in the Reader. John Conroy's article, entitled "House of Screams," prompted the AI inquiry, which compounded pressure from watchdog groups such as Citizens Alert that finally led to a fresh investigation of Burge by the Office of Professional Standards. But OPS's findings remain a mystery.

The second missed opportunity was, of course, Superintendent LeRoy Martin's bracing remarks about reconfiguring the Constitution to allow for justice along the lines practiced in China, whose prisons Martin recently toured. "We need to take a look at it [the Constitution] and maybe from time to time we should curtail some of those rights," Martin said. "Because some of those rights have gotten us into the position where we're living in an armed camp right now."

Martin aired his views during a radio interview being taped at WBBM AM. The Sun-Times reported the interview but focused strictly on Martin's defense of police chases; the Tribune dwelled on his constitutional theories. It sought out dissenters, got the mayor to comment, and massaged the subject for two articles in two days plus an editorial that denounced Martin's idea for an on-off switch to the Bill of Rights as "so blockheaded that it demands to be cut to ribbons."

Despite all the coverage, the Tribune failed to add that Amnesty International had just told the world that Martin's department might already be practicing what he preaches. The Tribune didn't mention Burge even though Martin had been asked about him by name during the taping. Martin denied sitting on the OPS report and explained he'd sent it back to OPS because a few points needed clarification. "I have certainly never been a proponent of any kind of brutality," he declared.

In 1982 and '83 Martin was commander of detectives in Area Two. Burge's Violent Crimes Unit was his direct responsibility. What could OPS tell him that he wasn't in a position to know years ago?

What Happened to the Voters' Channel?

America was supposed to see something different and historic on public television next year--coverage of the presidential elections so innovative it would amount to a change in the electoral process.

Don't count on it. Some of the new ideas may survive in bits and pieces, but the flag under which they flew--"The Voters' Channel"--came down this month when an alliance between the Public Broadcasting Service and the foundation sponsoring the idea fell apart.

Early June brought the first clear sign that something had gone wrong. Alvin Perlmutter, the producer overseeing the Voters' Channel, was expected to tell the heads of public TV stations meeting in Orlando about the exciting new election coverage coming their way in 1992. He didn't.

On July 1 the other shoe dropped. Spokesmen for PBS said the Voters' Channel had become too costly--at least $12 million for 25 hours of programming in 1992. The John and Mary Markle Foundation had pledged $5 million, PBS $3 million; the rest would have had to be raised. PBS didn't think there was time to find the money, hone the idea, begin creating and schedule the programming, and launch it all with the proper ballyhoo.

It's bitter news. Political coverage by the poverty-stricken networks will probably be more wretched than ever next year. The Voters' Channel promised to be an alluring alternative. It looked especially alluring if you believe that presidential elections have become travesties turning on fleeting images and cheesy symbols--the symbol of Willie Horton being rock bottom.

This conviction does not lack for voices. Last year's feasibility study of the Voters' Channel was laced with contemptuous testimony. Arthur Schlesinger: "The rise of the electronic media has had the effect of draining content out of campaigns." Walter Mondale: "We've got a kind of politics of irrelevance, of obscurantism, that is more prevalent than in any time I can recall." David Broder: "It doesn't have to be this way. There's nothing about the temper of the times or the technology of our communications system that must make campaigns negative or nauseating." Professor of government Larry Sabato: "The personality-cult politics encouraged by television is abhorrent. Candidates are unaccountable, aloof from average voters, and prone to stylistic gimmickry."

The other view, barely represented in the study, is that the '88 election was a fine show of democracy in action so why fix something that isn't broken? As this presumably is what the White House thinks, we had our suspicions about the Voters' Channel's demise. But close sources assure us the project wasn't sabotaged politically. The wheels came off all by themselves.

"To have this initiative collapse is a great disappointment . . . just disgraceful," Ward Chamberlain, former president of WETA in Washington, D.C., told the Washington Post. "If public television doesn't do that, then what the hell good is it?"

What was it about the Voters' Channel that Chamberlain mourns? The phrase itself is a working title for a concept that originated at the Markle Foundation, which in February of 1990 commissioned Alvin H. Perlmutter, Inc., to do a study of ways in which public TV might raise "the quality of discourse" in '92.

Alvin Perlmutter is an honored name in TV programming. Once an NBC News vice president, he's created such Emmy-winning documentaries as The Secret Government--The Constitution in Crisis and Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. By June, his firm's study was complete. It proposed that PBS name a production company (which turned out to be his own) that would "contract for, commission, and package program elements." Some would enhance existing programs like The MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour and Frontline (and also public radio shows like All Things Considered and Morning Edition). Some would become wholly new programming.

The first eight months of '92 would bring miniseries and specials linked to the primaries and conventions. Beginning in September, the Voters' Channel would air one hour a week--ideally at the same time everywhere--and during the week leading up to November 3 offer a half-hour program each day.

The study had a lot to say about analyzing the issues, scrutinizing the candidates, and plumbing the hearts of the people. But the idea that clearly stamped the Voters' Channel as something more than boutique television was "candidates' time": free time every night the show aired for the nominated candidates for president to face the camera and strut their stuff. How much time? The Perlmutter study couldn't be sure, and suggested it vary from two and a half to fifteen minutes.

"An essential ground rule of this airtime will be that the candidates themselves are seen and heard for a substantial portion of the time," the study declared.

Who knows? The nation might have wound up with nothing but thicker cuts of baloney. But as political columnist Jack Germond told the study group, maybe wishfully, "If the candidate's an empty suit, it's going to come through." If any item in the video "curriculum"--to use the study's fancy term for its assorted proposals--promised to transform the '92 election, it was this.

The Voters' Channel isn't quite dead yet. Too many important figures like Ward Chamberlain remain too committed to it. Today, Chamberlain is a consultant to the Group of Seven or G-7, the seven stations that in terms of size, audience, and the programming they originate dominate the 340-odd public TV stations in the United States. These stations, WTTW among them, were heavily involved in planning the Voters' Channel, and this week G-7 leaders met in New York to figure out where to try to go from here and how to get there.

"If anything of significance is going to be put together it's got to be done in the next six to eight weeks," Chamberlain told us, "and some of the more complicated things might prove to be too difficult. We've got to go out and convince people other than the Markle Foundation to put money in it, too."

WTTW expected to be one of the production centers of the Voters' Channel, and William McCarter, the station's president, is as interested as anyone in keeping the idea alive. With PBS out of the picture, he told us, a first priority is to create a new distribution network. A consortium of public TV stations, he supposed. Plus a cable network. Maybe C-Span.

Will the Voters' Channel make it? we asked him.

"I think the urgency of the need and the rightness of what it is we're trying to do may push 50-50 odds over into 70-30," McCarter said. "That's probably optimistic . . ."

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