By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
In a town where politicians hate anything that gets in the way of their backroom deals with corporate America, a hard-nosed community activist like Dutton would never get her own TV show if it was up to political hotshots. But Dutton and other hard-charging activists never needed approval of Los Angeles City Council and the Mayor’s Office to show up on TV. They simply appeared on free public access.
On her show, Full Disclosure Network, Dutton undertook a long investigation of the disastrous construction of Belmont High School on a toxic site, helping to expose the waste and mismanagement of the so-called Taj Mahal High, a multibillion-dollar fiasco undertaken by the Los Angeles Unified School District. When L.A. Unified officials refused to let her on the grounds to film the site, she rented a small plane and taped it from the air.
“From the beginning,” Dutton says, “we’ve said there’s only one way to deal with this stuff, and that’s to bring it to the people.”
Dutton’s reputation as a truth seeker has earned her the respect of powerful judges, lawyers, law-enforcement officials and community activists, all of whom regularly appear on her show and give her scoops.
John Walsh, the wild-eyed, fast-talking critic of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, used his show, Neighborhood Point of View, to spotlight expensive, seemingly endless screw-ups by Metro in building the city’s subway system. MTA insiders watched Walsh on several cable outlets, including Hollywood’s Channel 24, on Friday nights, and eventually fed him more information, which many believe killed the subway expansion a decade ago. One headline dubbed him “The Freak Who Stopped the Subway.” Walsh now has set his sights on damaging one of Time Warner’s most valuable properties. “I want to start a boycott of Time magazine,” he says.
Zuma Dogg fought the oppressive, tightly controlled L.A. City Council meetings presided over by Council President Garcetti, who had banned video cameras. After security guards tried to stop Zuma Dogg from taping the council deliberations, he railed against the big shots for months, slamming Garcetti as “Garshady” on his show and on the whistleblower blog Mayor Sam (mayorsam.blogspot.com). “It was crazy,” Zuma Dogg says. “Whatever happened to free speech in this country?” He prevailed against Garcetti’s rules, and now brings his JVC camera to every council meeting, as can any member of the public thanks to him.
For many people, Dutton, Walsh and Zuma Dogg are underdogs, which makes the story behind the demise of public-access TV in the media capital of Los Angeles feel bizarre: The person who can be largely credited for its downfall is one Fabian Nuñez, recently departed speaker of the Assembly and self-described fighter for the disenfranchised.
For 19 years, Judy Dugan worked at the Los Angeles Times, where she rose to an influential job as the deputy editorial page editor. Dugan had worked with reporters who covered rough-and-tumble politics and thought she had seen it all. Then she caught Nuñez’s maneuvering in Sacramento to wipe out public access. “Even I was shocked by what I found,” Dugan says.
When Dugan went to work for Consumer Watchdog as a research director in 2005, one of her first solo assignments was to follow the progress of the obscure Assembly Bill 2987.
The bill, Dugan says, was a “cookie-cutter law that was shopped around by AT&T,” from statehouse to statehouse nationwide, seeking a nibble from an amenable state legislator — anyone would do. AT&T had been providing phone and Internet service for years, but cable companies like Time Warner were coming onto their turf by offering Internet and phone service, as well as television programming.
To stay competitive, AT&T jumped into the cable-TV business but faced a major obstacle — cable companies had longstanding “franchise” agreements worked out on a city-by-city basis with mayors like Tom Bradley. A 1970s mandate by the Federal Communications Commission required that cable systems “provide channels for government, for educational purposes and, most importantly, for public access.”
Several free public-access channels were created in Los Angeles, and 12 free public studios were built in Eagle Rock, Hollywood, East L.A. and South Los Angeles, among other locales. By 1987, according to City Hall’s 2003 Information Technology Agency report, Los Angeles was a “model” for the nation, offering such “progressive provisions” as the “universal build-out of the systems to all areas of the city,” and “equipment and facilities for public and educational access use.”
AT&T wanted into that lucrative market. They sought a federal law to upend the old deals, but Congress and the Bush Administration didn’t bite. AT&T approached at least 17 states, including Indiana, New York and Texas, Dugan says, with a bill to take cable franchise negotiations away from city and county governments, scuttle existing public-access deals, and hand the future decisions to a state agency.“AT&T lobbied hard in a number of states,” says Dugan, “and some of them fell for it.”