Our Opinion: Revisit broadcast blackout for Wilson council comments

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Wilsonians who want to watch their representatives in action can tune in to Channel 8, Greenlight Community Broadband’s government access channel. But if you want to hear what fellow residents have to say and can’t make it to City Hall, you’re out of luck.

In 2008, the Wilson City Council stopped airing the public comment portion of its meetings. The mayor and council members said televising the remarks encouraged grandstanding. Folks were performing for the camera instead of addressing substantive issues.

City Manager Grant Goings said candidates abused public comment time to air political messages from the podium, speakers used profanities that couldn’t be bleeped out on the live broadcast and amateur actors subjected the council to all manner of bizarre demonstrations.

There was also a desire to accommodate camera-shy Wilsonians who didn’t want to be filmed. A 2009 Times editorial says some residents told council members that airing public comments kept them away from the podium.

Those folks may prefer to meet one-on-one with their district’s council member instead of speaking during a public meeting where state law allows anyone present to take photographs and make video and audio recordings. There’s no expectation of privacy during open sessions in government boardrooms.

The council initially declared a “cooling-off period” for televising public comments. Goings said the showboaters stayed home. But after resuming the uninterrupted broadcast, problems with inappropriate and performative comments persisted.

Wilson pulled the plug on televised public comments again, and for quite some time, live broadcasts and reruns of the council meetings have excluded them.

District 4 council candidate Davonta Ferguson raised the issue last fall during The Wilson Times’ candidate forum, saying the current policy was stifling criticism and muting residents’ voices. Ferguson’s bid for office was unsuccessful, but he made a good point that warrants careful consideration.

Perhaps it’s time the Wilson City Council revisit its decision to leave public comments out of the televised meetings. Times have changed and some concerns may be moot.

Since digital video recorders and streaming sites have fundamentally changed viewing habits over the last decade, ushering in what TV critics call “the end of appointment television,” maybe a live local broadcast holds less appeal for attention-seekers. It’s hard to believe hams would hijack a municipal meeting in 2020 when they can record their antics on a cellphone, upload the video to YouTube and, with the right keywords and a little luck, go viral.

Cutting public comments from the broadcast isn’t a good look. The many sincere Wilsonians who share their views from the people’s podium deserve the opportunity for fellow residents to hear them. An occasional uncomfortable remark is a small price to pay for meaningful dialogue on our city’s future.

Any dissatisfaction with City Hall is muted, along with any public praise. People who watch council meetings on TV don’t get a sense of how popular or controversial a given subject may be.

Comments were taken off the air in part because candidates used the podium to deliver short stump speeches. Is that really a good reason? Sitting council members aren’t subject to broadcast blackouts when they’re running for reelection. The current policy doesn’t discourage politicking so much as it rewards incumbency.

Wilson deserves credit for broadcasting its council meetings. It’s a public service that helps city residents stay informed. But amplifying elected officials and muting citizen speakers sends the wrong message. A seat on the dais comes with a starring role in this Channel 8 production, and the constituents who take the time to share their views can’t even be extras.

We doubt the presence of a video camera would have any discernible effect on the content of speakers’ remarks. We trust Wilsonians to address their representatives with candor and civility. Maybe the council should, too.