So I'm reading Seven days on line and caught this short article "Burlington Telecom to Dump Al Jazeera" in Local Matters By Ken Picard. In short, Paul Laffal and Jeffrey Kaufman, of the Israel Center of Vermont; a local Israeli activist group were quoted as saying that Al Jazeera's programming was:
“hate speech insidiously presented as news serves only to undermine the basic tenets of democracy.”
The article also states that according to Burlington Telecom, "dozens" of BT subscribers have complained/denounced the channel since BT started carrying AL Jazeera last year. That's right- since last YEAR, "dozens" of complaints. I'm pretty certain that misogyny-boosting comic strip, "The Lockhorns" gets more complaints at the Burlington Free press in a year, but I digress.
I was pretty flabbergasted at BT General Manager Chris Burns' reason for dropping the station from the lineup-
“We’re a small cable TV carrier in Burlington trying to acquire more business,” Burns said. “We really don’t need to stir up more dust.”
So, I wrote a letter to the editor at Seven Days-
Referring to "Burlington Telecom to Dump Al Jazeera; Local Matters By Ken Picard [05.07.08".
I'm not certain if this has been pointed out(if so, please disregard my redundancy) but in fact Al Jazeera(as well as Russia Today and Democracy Now) is available on Ch.16 RETN , A PEG programming station that serves VT communities from Essex down to Vergennes. So I suppose that this will serve those who receive the channel on BT a "loophole".
On to the meat of the matter, I find it really really troubling that a special interest group and ANY amount of the public can dictate terms on the transmission and circulation of ideas/news/speech. It is of no surprise to me that representatives of the Israel Center of Vermont would have a bias against the AlJazeera network and any of it's reportage or editorial opinions. It is not a surprise that BT General Manager Chris Burns' office has received "dozens" of complaints; one could have almost any controversial programming of any subject matter and experience the ire of dozens or more cable subscribers. What distresses me is both Israel Center of Vermont andBT GM Chris Burns' public reaction to Al Jazeera and it's programming.
It would appear that Mr. Laffal and Kaufman are of the opinion that Al Jazeera's programming constitutes “hate speech insidiously presented as news serves only to undermine the basic tenets of democracy." I wonder given the fact that the debate and bloodshed (as well as a great deal of goodwill and attempts at bridge building by pacifist groups on either side)between the Israelis and Palestinians in the middle east and the war of ideas, politics and propaganda by their representatives in the US, that we here in the United States, and more specifically, a progressive free-speech "don't tread on my liberties" state like Vermont would stay neutral in this debate and allow all parties to express their opinion with equal vigor, accuracy and rhetoric. Not so it seems in the case of BT General Manager Chris Burns. Apparently, Mr. Burns has the authority to tell those of us in the community - those who would pay the bill that allows the "little cable engine that could" - a shining municipal gem in the sky of big-business telecoms [to do business], what we, the people, can and cannot be exposed to.
All GM's and programming directors at cable TV companies make decisions on dropping and adding channels all the time- it's part of the business of cable TV However, the decision to drop or add programming is almost always an issue of bandwidth/channel limitations and cost effectiveness. According to an article published Saturday, April 21, 2007 by Burlington Free Press Staff Writer SamHemmingway, “...Burlington Telecom began offering Al Jazeera in its cable packages to customers six months ago. The two-year-old cable system does not pay anything for Al Jazeera and has a contract to provide it until 2011.” In addition, it has always been one of the selling points during BT's inception that we would have bandwidth and channel volume much higher than with conventional telecoms /cable providers in the past. So both of these scenarios do not have any bearing on Mr. Burns edict. No, in point of fact the only decision cited is “...trying to acquire more business...” and “We really don’t need to stir up more dust.” My question to Chris Burns would be, “Excuse me sir, but what business are you referring to that would be damaged by the free exchange of ideas? What DUST would be kicked up by providing international news services, no matter who they represent? I suppose that the Arab community of Burlington is not to be represented in this decision? ”
From this decision by Mr. Burns we are to assume then that an international cable news provider that is watched by Arab and non-Arab citizens worldwide with an opinion and op-ed slant contrary to the current US administration and the hard-line Israeli lobby is bad for business, therefore to be dropped from the channel lineup. Because the Israel Center of Vermont and "dozens" of subscribers disagree with said channel's programming or consider it hate speech. If that is the case, then as a card carrying liberal in a sea of the same here in theBT area(and , until now a gung-ho potential BT customer- now rethinking who i will give my money to)- I demand the removal of FOX NEWS for it's "hate speech propaganda"(my opinion)! No deal, Mr. Burns? Well how about if the Peace and Justice Center and "dozens" ofBT subscribers rally on the phone, email, etc? How about any other station that a special interest group and a phone bank wants off the lineup? Sound ridiculous? That's because it is.
The notion that any group and any MUNICIPAL employee can dictate what is and is not acceptable speech, particularly in the area of what is or is not news, information etc., is appalling, laughable and troubling, all at the same time. I suppose when an element of any extremity demands the removal of speech that they don't like we are just supposed to knuckle under to their demands and just terminate that point of view- abridge the flow of information that we, the citizens have the right to decide the validity of. As much as theICV and Mr. Burns would have the community think so- that is not and never will be (i hope) the current interpretation of the first amendment. It is also not a reasonable stance to take in lieu of the fact that at any given moment we are availed at every turn by groups and individuals in our communities with an axe to grind; "the truth" to reveal, and will rally to expose or squash the purveyors of whatever "they" don't agree with.
I sincerely hope that the citizens served by BT will call/email Mr. Burns and inform him of their opinions on the matter; I've a suspicion that more than dozens feel that an abridgment of their access to information is not in their best interests. At least I hope so.
I will leave you with the following quote from the Burlington Telecom's "About Burlington Telecom" web page (http://www.burlingtontelecom.net/aboutus/):
“... Although we are a City Department, this network is privately financed and clean of any taxpayer contributions. To pay for the effort, Burlington Telecom will provide the three basic services itself: cable TV, telephone, and high-speed Internet. But anyone else will also be free to use the network to deliver these or other services. (This is similar to a City providing public roads while also providing basic bus service as well. Citizens and businesses can use the bus service or they can use the roads to provide their own transportation.)"
“...But anyone else will also be free to use the network to deliver these or other services." Except of course anyone that The Israel Center of Vermont disagrees with or is going to inconvenience Mr. Burns future BT business campaign by stirring up “more dust.”
That about sums up my opinion. except I forgot to counter the ICofV's opinion that “hate speech insidiously presented as news serves only to undermine the basic tenets of democracy.” Well, I guess they didn't pay attention in civics class. In point of fact, FREE SPEECH does not undermine the tenets of democracy, THE RESTRICTION OF IT DOES.
Hope it gets noticed - hope it sees print. Hope you all write or call BT about this bad decision. Do so at: http://www.burlingtontelecom.net/contactus/
UPDATE: During a conversation with an RETN employee I was informed that they may carry whatever Israeli/Jewish news equivalent to Al Jazeera they can find. Seems like the best example of smart, fair and balanced in this whole affair. Let's wish them well in their endeavors to promote diversity of information, rather than the elimination of it.