The Grateful Web

One thing noteworthy about the recent county gun-show debates was the vital role the Internet played on both sides of the dialogue.

Staffers in the offices of the liberal county supervisors -- who opposed the continuation of the shows on county property -- bolstered their arguments off the countless Web sites of state and federal legislators. They also visited sites of pro- and anti-gun organizations and a few of what might be called “hate sites.” (There was a lot of interest in this proposal on the far right.)

On the other side, as noted last week, the state NRA (along with Supervisor Mike Antonovich) weighed in with its own Web-site encouragement to those who supported the shows. Both sides grazed extensively on the various local and national media sites to buttress their own arguments and attack those of their opponents while we media people tried to keep up with the debate by similar means.

Meanwhile, citizen partisans on both sides who didn’t happen to own computers ventured to local libraries to use the Internet. As a result, you could say a lot of things about the debate, many of them uncomplimentary -- but you could not say that it was ill-informed. The Internet has been a burgeoning resource over the past few years for all local governments. But this time it was a determining factor in keeping most of the parties educated on a complex and highly emotional issue.

Unfortunately, at least when it comes to our county government, the Web may no longer be such a resource. For, during the same board meeting in which the board took its final 3-2 vote to end gun sales on county land, it also voted -- unanimously and without discussion -- to investigate how best to curtail unlimited use of the Internet, not just in county libraries, but in the Hall of Administration itself.

The motion for a report on how to regulate such services came from Supervisor Don Knabe, previously rational on such issues. According to his spokesman, John Wallace, this is a real problem -- recently, he said, the FBI discovered “extensive child pornography and erotica” on the office computer of a county-hospital employee. “It‘s already a problem,” Wallace said.

Knabe’s proposal asked the county‘s chief information officer and the head of the Internal Services Department to review the extant means of monitoring employee access to “inappropriate” Web sites. By “inappropriate,” Knabe said he meant sites with “nudity, pornography, violence and profanity, illegal and radical activities, vulgarity and crudeness, hate and intolerance, gambling, stock trading, auctions, dating, chat rooms, bomb making, etc.” Dating, chat rooms, bomb making: There’s your usual public-employee mischief, for sure.

But what else have we here? Does Knabe really imagine that there is some way that mechanical censorship can tell between the content of a neo-Nazi Hitler speech archive and the same material in William Shirer‘s classic history of Nazism? Or a safe-sex instruction site and a porno site? And just what “activity” does this Republican supervisor consider too “radical” for his staff: Reading The Progressive, The Nation, or even The New Republic? Or perhaps the newspaper in your hands?

Even this was not enough. The county’s youth must be protected from those porno bomb makers. So the county librarian was recruited to “protect minors in our county libraries from harmful or obscene . . . sites through the use of filters.” By “filters,” we mean special software to scan for telltale words and phrases and select the naughty Web material from the nice.

The vote was delayed two weeks, while County Counsel Lloyd Pellman manufactures an opinion. Opposition is already mounting.

According to Lauren Bartlett‘s account in the Daily Journal (the only daily paper to report the matter), the Southern California ACLU says the county counsel errs when he presumes that objectionable material is capable of being “filtered” out of Web content. This, of course, also presupposes intent: Obviously, as Wallace notes, there can be an objection to “employees gambling or viewing objectionable sexual material” on county time, but is everyone who presumes to boot up something that makes Don Knabe uncomfortable out for a cheap thrill? For instance, a Department of Health Services researcher looking for statistics on breast cancer or testicular disorders would probably run smack into one of those balky cybernetic sieves. So would a patron of a county library who was faced with a life-endangering health problem.

This is probably why the region’s pre-eminent authority on constitutional law, USC‘s Erwin Chemerinsky, was quoted as saying of the ordinance, “There is no doubt that [it is] unconstitutional.”

That’s what federal courts have found elsewhere. According to the Journal, such anti-Web-access laws have been and are being shot down in other states.

Three federal-court decisions so far in Virginia alone have overturned local laws limiting government-employee and library-patron access to sexually explicit materials and materials “deemed harmful to juveniles.” A similar local ordinance recently went down in flames in New Mexico federal District Court. One understands that a county counsel‘s job is not an easy one. That, unlike the Los Angeles city attorney, he serves at the pleasure of a haughty clutch of supervisors who can often be very hard to please.

But I think that occasionally it is in such an official’s career interest -- as well as within his fiduciary responsibility -- to hear the sound of downstream rapids and warn his employers, in as respectful a manner as possible, that this one, folks, could be a shipwreck. In his memo to the board, Pellman alludes to one of the Virginia cases in which such a law was overturned. He does quote that court as finding “that restricting what adults may read to a level appropriate to minors is a violation of the free-speech guarantee . . .”

But the strongest thing Pellman says against Knabe‘s proposal is that the general use of county-library filters, at least, “may not withstand legal scrutiny.” This understatement may please his employers now. But it could make them very unhappy in months to come, when the county’s up to its chin in First Amendment litigation and scorn from the libertarian right to the civil rights left.

All because of a silly little Big Brother law, born to do far more harm than good.

Merging With Mel

What‘s the meaning of $36.3 billion? Well, among other things, it means that six of Los Angeles’ radio stations and one of its TV channels will be under the same management -- Sumner Redstone and Mel Karmazin‘s Viacom-CBS merger monstrosity.

Now, by any imaginable standards of the FCC and other federal regulatory agencies, this should be a big deal. But we now live in an era in which mergers seem as inevitable as earthquakes. So what if there are now three or four media juggernauts who pretty much control what we see, hear and even read? In this town, for instance, the CBS entity includes not just KCBS, but both full-time news radio stations.

Media accounts of the merger tended to replicate the press releases: Redstone was “feisty,” Karmazin “hard-nosed.” The deal would promote “cost savings and increased efficiencies.” You’d think that someone, someplace, would have asked, since broadcasting is usually considered a public service, whether the deal would enhance this service to the public.

The news-station employees I‘ve talked to -- all off the record -- concur that it won’t.

One newsroom staffer pointed out that Karmazin last year required that his local news stations produce an annual earnings increase of 25 percent. This is set against the fact that after many months of negotiations, union on-air personnel just got a skimpy 3 percent raise.

“Fewer reporters now spend less time on more stories; we‘re still using Reagan-era computers, and there are never enough office supplies. How can this not affect the quality of our product?” another reporter asked. “But the stock’s risen 300 percent,” the reporter added, noting that, accordingly, quite a few station staffers have become CBS stockholders.

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