I was a big fan of NJN, the state-funded television and news network that Governor Christie gave to his cronies last June. So, like others, I held the station’s new incarnation, NJTV, to the same high standards that its predecessor followed.
What I liked about NJN, and what I expected from NJTV was:
1. Balanced reporting
2. In depth (live) coverage of important legislative proceedings
3. Professional-quality television
I was disappointed on all three fronts.
First, the giveaway was apparently done with no transition plan. Over the past summer, NJTV continually promoted its “new and improved” services while operating with bare bones staff and equipment. Give it credit for hiring Michael Aron, the elder broadcast statesman from NJN, even though I believe Aron leans rightward more often than straight ahead. NJTV’s state house coverage was, and still is, pitiful. Its presence at legislative hearings is noticeable by its absence, whereas NJN’s cameras used to be ubiquitous throughout the committee rooms. While NJTV covered Governor Christie’s state-of-the state in its entirety, it was not until it was cajoled by Blue Jersey that the staff even considered showing the Democratic response. And it turned out the broadcast broke away from that response before it was completed1 .
So while NJTV covers Chris Christie’s cacophonies, I was curious to see how it would handle one of the Democrats’ top priority initiatives, civil rights.
Last Thursday, the Democratic-dominated Assembly Judiciary Committee held seven hours of hearings on marriage equality. I was there both as a supporter and to record the proceedings because I knew NJTV would not. One would think that the state’s network would cover this high-priority Democratic initiative with as much depth as it does the Governor’s antics. So I decided to verify this by recording that evening’s NJTV newscast for later analysis.
Before the start of the hearings, I saw Michael Aron doing an in-depth interview with freshman Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi. I was happy to see NJTV devoting its star reporter to marriage equality, and even though Schepisi is a Republican, I figured that the report would give equal time to both sides. But my assumption about the scope of that interview was way off base.
That evening’s half-hour newscast contained 21 minutes and 31 seconds of reporting. Of that, only 1 minute, 54 seconds was devoted to the Democrats’ prime topic, marriage equality. It turns out that the interview with Schepisi was not about the key civil rights issue of this generation, but rather it was a 3 minute, 12 second piece about the fact that freshman legislators like Schepisi do not qualify to receive taxpayer-funded medical benefits (because their work in the legislature is considered part-time employment). So legislators’ benefits got 37% more air time than civil rights.
The short segment on marriage equality was also underdone. Even though the NJTV crew was in the committee room, there were no interviews with advocates from either side. Instead, the less-than-two-minute segment was a Skype-quality video of a reporter describing the proceedings at a superficial level.
Not all is bad, though. My (admittedly biased) impression was that NJTV spends more time with the right than with the left. And although on this particular broadcast marriage equality got short shrift, the rest of the broadcast was even-handed. In addition to Schepisi, NJTV also gave air time to Assemblyman Sean Kean. But the left was not left out. NJTV did an in-depth interview with Deborah Jacobs of the ACLU and with the chairman of the Budget Committee, Assemblyman Vincent Prieto. So based on this sample size of one broadcast, I’ll say that the reporting is becoming more balanced.
Still, the coverage of the legislature needs to be improved. The legislature streams audio of most proceedings. It’s often difficult listening to the stream to determine who is talking. And without seeing body language and gestures, the listener is only getting half the message. The New Jersey Supreme Court is marginally better, streaming postage-stamp size videos and archiving them for future reference.
What is needed is a C-SPAN-like service for the legislature. Every committee and every session should be streamed, and the most important proceedings should pre-empt NJTV’s cartoons and be broadcast live. The legislators should promote transparency and involvement by making their work more accessible, and NJTV should have a big part in that initiative. NJTV is getting better – going from a grade of F in June to a grade of D today. Since the taxpayer still funds a good portion of NJTV, the legislature should ensure that NJTV lives up to its viewers’ expectations.
1 I don’t fault them from cutting away in this case. The Democratic response was disjointed and consisted of repetitive rhetoric from the leadership instead of a single coordinated comprehensive rebuttal.
NJN Signoff – Jim Hooker and Michael Aron