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I want you to see me at work: Assemblyman Bob Reilly.

We’re Watching You

In the future, New Yorkers may be able to eavesdrop on their representatives with a touch of the remote

Reality television has opened a window into the lives of some of our more eccentric, interesting, and in some cases despicable celebrities. Millions have watched the dysfunctional Osbornes lumber around their mansion, chronic bankruptee Donald Trump fire overambitious losers, and the fortune-by-crime Gotti family exercise their accents. But what if New Yorkers could tune in to something that directly affects their lives—would they actually watch it?

Members of the New York State Assembly are looking into a C-SPAN-like New York channel. C-SPAN delivers true reality TV: coverage of the decision making that impacts our lives the most. It is where Americans can see their representatives in hearings, debating issues, giving testimony and voting on new laws. While it would not offer the drama of celebrities, a New York equivalent of C-SPAN would, supporters say, allow citizens to see what we pay our representatives for.

“A C-SPAN-like broadcast in New York state would be of great interest and tremendously beneficial to New Yorkers, so they can actually see how government functions in Albany,” said Russ Haven, legislative counsel with the New York Public Interest Research Group. Haven said the current interest in legislative reform shows it would be worthwhile for the public. “This is particularly important, now more than ever with the public’s concerns about government access.”

Generally, reporters are the only ones who sit in on legislative proceedings, while the public catches only the glimpses the press offers on televised news and in papers. The public misses the heated debates and the way politicians react to tough questions or roll over soft ones. They don’t hear entire speeches or whole answers, only sound bites with context provided by the media outlet. They don’t see the angry reactions, flustered moments, or occasional arguments. Sometimes expressions say more than words.

The public has expressed a desire to see change happen in Albany. If government is televised, say advocates, the public can, literally, see change happen, or fail to happen.

Members of the good-government group Common Cause New York have been contacting their legislators this week to push for televised government. Executive Director Rachel Leon said New York is the only one out of the 10 most populous states in the nation that does not have a televised system, and that now is a good moment to start. “Technologically speaking, the time has come. They’re already filming it, they just need to find the cable outlet, the means to get it out to New Yorkers,” she said, adding that the talk of reform has increased the amount of debate among lawmakers, making open access even more crucial.

“The Assembly’s initiative in doing this is really part of the reform package to open up to people, provide access to what’s happening in the Legislature,” said Assemblyman Bob Reilly (D-Colonie). “I think there will be support for it.”

A representative speaking for Assembly Majority Leader Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), said that Silver and Minority Leader Charlie Nesbitt (R-Albion) are both in favor of this initiative.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, live proceedings were available to the public, via different forms of media, in 45 states as of February 2004. Twenty-seven states air their sessions on TV, including Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Ohio. Legislative happenings are put on the Internet as well, sometimes only with audio, but often by streaming video. The New York Legislature currently offers Internet access to our representatives via streaming video.

Between 1986 and 1992, a channel called NYSCAN provided some televised coverage of New York’s state government, but only to Capital Region viewers. It ran on a budget of $500,000 with 10 employees. Gov. Mario Cuomo had it canned, claiming it would be fiscally responsible to use the funds elsewhere.

In 1999, Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno (R-Brunswick) and Silver created a joint Senate-Assembly task force on televised sessions to research restarting some form of direct government access. The task force came up with an estimate of $20 to $30 million for creating an independent outlet to air sessions and other in-Capitol happenings.

When the task force was first researching the issue, digital cable was not available in most of the state. The task force saw this as a major obstacle because analog cable’s channel capacity is limited, and it was likely that not all cable providers would be on board with devoting a channel for such a project. They decided to start with Internet audio broadcasts and eventually video.

“Recent technological advances allow us the historic opportunity to open state government up to millions of people throughout New York and the entire world,” Silver said in a 2000 press release announcing the Internet feeds.

While this claim is true, television broadcasts are still likely to reach larger numbers than Internet ones. Internet connections are still not as reliable, or as common, as TV, and sitting in front of a computer is less comfortable than on a couch. Also, most people don’t flip through channels on their computer, so you basically have to know when you want to watch it and what you want to see.

In 2000, the task force predicted that channel capacity would grow, and with digital television it has done so tremendously. And so, as an outgrowth of this year’s reform package, a committee of Assembly members is again working to put the Assembly on air.

“What the committee will be doing in the near future is visiting with various potential broadcasting partners,” said Reilly.

Besides finding distribution, another issue is production. Reilly doesn’t think everything would necessarily be live, mostly because of the amount of dead air that would result while the members go into conference, or votes are being taken and tallied. Working out what gets edited and what is aired will take some time and guidelines, he said.

Reilly said the committee has not reached the stage where the members can predict the cost of setting up this project, but he seems to think the initial production-end start-up will be most costly. “The House and the Assembly are already well set up for the production of proceedings,” said Reilly. “I think we can easily move into televised hearings. The question becomes staffing and editing, and I’d imagine they’d have to move into digital equipment. That would mean some capital cost to get started.”

Although it seems the Senate supports the idea, that body doesn’t appear to be taking the initiative the Assembly is. Reilly said he believes the Assembly is ahead when it comes to working on televising sessions, but he expects the Senate will follow. They have not come to any decision on whether the two will share a channel or use separate feeds.

—Kevin Abbott


overheard:“That’s it! You talk the way Southern blacks were taught to talk to whites. You don’t look people in the eye.”

—White man talking to a white woman at intermission of a Capital Repertory show, in the midst of a longer explanation about her conversational habits.


What a Week

Friendly Faces Make Friendly Questions

Taking a page from The White House Guide to Public Interaction, Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings recently opted out of the standard Q&A format for the monthly Albany Roundtable luncheons, choosing (for the third consecutive year) to pick which audience members could provide questions rather than simply answering submitted questions selected by moderator Paul Bray for relevance. The hard- hitting questions Jennings chose to address during this election-year forum included whether he was related to Jeopardy winner Ken Jennings and if he planned to serve longer than former Mayor Erastus Corning 2nd.


Create the Truth

Mediabistro, an online resource for media professionals, recently included among its job postings a call for a new “fact writer” for Fox New Channel’s 24-hour television news network in New York City. Responsibilities include the ambiguous task of “writing on-air facts and press conference quotes.” Sure, it sounded like it should be a reporter’s job to us, too, but it makes sense when you think about it: When the real facts don’t match your agenda, just write new facts.


Failing Upward

President Bush recently nominated John Negroponte, the current U.S. ambassador to Iraq, to the newly created office of director of national intelligence. Negroponte previously served as ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985, and has been linked to some of the shadier aspects of U.S. involvement in Latin America, including reports of U.S.-trained death squads killing activists and other gross violations of international human-rights laws. Negroponte has also been accused of altering reports to Congress about human-rights violations in Honduras in an effort to preserve U.S. funding for operations there.

Timing Is Everything

Just hours after G.W. Bush signed legislation shifting class-action lawsuits from state to federal courts (thereby placing such lawsuits under the jurisdiction of federally appointed judges rather than their more consumer-friendly state counterparts), the FDA announced that the controversial painkillers Celebrex, Bextra and Vioxx won’t be removed from U.S. markets, despite the drugs’ link (through earlier reports by the FDA) to increased likelihood of heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular dangers. Of course, it’s all probably just a coincidence. Really. Just a coincidence. We’re sure of it.


photo:John Whipple

Why aren’t motorcycles allowed to park at the Rensselaer Amtrak Station?

Although their riders don’t get harassed about driving below the speed limit quite as often as bicyclists, motorcycles still experience some of the same harassment as their nonmotorized two-wheeled brethren, from being refused service at drive-throughs to being run off the road by careless car drivers. So a sensitive biker might at first be apt to read something sinister into the notices at the Rensselaer Amtrak Station long-term parking area that say that motorcycles are prohibited for your safety .

A customer-service representative for the station didn’t know about the ban (employees get parking spots in the short-term parking area right in front of the building it seems), but Les Arras, a manager for Maiden Lane parking systems, who was chatting with a parking attendant at the lot, was able to clear it up.

The parking gates that Maiden Lane, which runs the station’s parking, uses are triggered to open by the presence of a certain amount of “metal mass,” Arras explained. Motorcycles aren’t quite large enough, and either won’t trigger the gate to open or may “lose” the signal early, leaving the gate to drop and bash some poor motorcyclist on the head. OK, so they weren’t kidding about safety reasons.

An article on the American Motorcycle Association Web site confirms that many magnetically triggered gates have problems with not opening for motorcycles, which are not only lighter, but are made with a higher aluminum-to-steel proportion than most cars. It’s not clear if the closing-on-someone’s-head problem has actually happened, since once a gate opens its closing is controlled by a timer, but it is apparently a commonly cited reason for banning motorcycles from parking garages and paid parking lots.

The AMA recommends that concerned bikers ask parking management to adjust the sensitivity of their sensor, which is usually possible; add an optical trigger rather than a magnetic one; or shorten the arm so motorcycles can get around a closed gate. Still, “the real problem,” said Imre Szauter, AMA legislative affairs specialist, “is the fact that these manufacturers aren’t designing gates for motorcycle use.”

Amano, the makers of the gates used at the Albany-Rensselaer station, and the administration of Maiden Lane Parking, could not be reached by press time. An incensed representative from another parking-gate manufacturer, Cincinnati Gate Systems, responded to the question of whether gates could be made motorcycle-safe by saying that they already were, and it was all a problem of insurance underwriters and revenue control, not safety. (He also said, however, that asking the question was tantamount to being “against American business,” so it may be a sore spot.)

In any case, Amtrak-riding motorcyclists can take heart. Arras said there are plans to add a “concrete pad” out in front of the gates for motorcycle parking some time in the next year or two—and it’ll be free.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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