HARTFORD, CT — Concerned about the break-up between the General Assembly and its nonprofit operator for 19 years, two Democratic lawmakers want to make sure the Connecticut Network doesn’t turn into a state-run television station that restricts editorial control.
Modeled after C-SPAN the network was created to provide gavel-to-gavel coverage of the legislature and the executive and judicial branches. However, over the years the nonprofit that ran the network expanded its coverage to include programming to help bring context to the sometimes weighty public policy issues. It even sought to expand its coverage through a 40 cent per month fee on cable subscribers.
It was at that point the relationship began to sour and the additional programming hosted by veteran broadcast journalist Diane Smith came to an end.
Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, and Rep. Bob Godfrey, D-Danbury, who held an information forum Monday, are still looking for answers about how the General Assembly should best handle the operation of the Connecticut Network, CT-N.
Last fall, the Connecticut Public Affairs Network (CPAN) and the Office of Legislative Management weren’t able to come to terms on a new contract, at the same time as legislators cut funding for the network.
Since then, CPAN has ceased operating the network and the Office of Legislative Management has taken over and hired 14 people to operate and produce the coverage. The staff doesn’t have health benefits, vacation time, or even overtime, but they were hired back at their same pay level.
There hasn’t been a hugely noticeable difference in the coverage.
“We cover all three branches of government,” Eric Connery, facilities administrator for the Office of Legislative Management, said Monday.
The editorial decisions for the network are being made by those 14 staff members and not Legislative Management staff, who report to the legislative leaders of all four caucuses.
While there was initially concerns about editorial control and how that might impact the coverage decisions of the network, Pat Sheehan, chairman of the CPAN board of directors, said “I think they’re doing a terrific job with what they’re covering.”
He said these are former CPAN staff members and they are professionals, but “they’re doing it within the constraints that are out there.”
Those constraints include what can’t be covered.
“The most powerful thing that’s part of the editorial process is what you don’t cover,” Sheehan said Monday during the informational hearing.
He said they’re not covering the political party conventions or any politics anymore. They’re not doing any programming, like the weekly Capitol Report roundup, to explain what’s happening. Legislative leaders have said budget constraints required the network to refocus on the legislature and what’s happening in the building, as opposed to outside the building.
Toward the end of the relationship “we had said we would raise private funds to keep Capitol Report on the air and we were told if we did that we still would not be allowed to operate the network,” Sheehan said.
“Do I think that they’ve messed with the editorial control this year? No, I don’t other than the fact of the things that are not being covered,” Sheehan said.
David McGuire, executive director of the Connecticut ACLU, said his organization believes there should be an independent third party operator and it should be “the network and not just politicians deciding what should be put on there.
Michael Savino, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, asked whether Legislative Management was invited to Monday’s meeting and what they’ve offered as far as editorial control is concerned.
“Let me know what the answer is please,” Godfrey said. “I haven’t been able to get it.”
There have been no indications that Legislative Management has offered any input at all on what’s covered by the network.
While Connery sits in the staff meetings, he hasn’t offered any input, according to sources.
Godfrey didn’t answer Savino’s question about whether Legislative Management was invited Monday to the meeting.
“They seem to be more than an obstacle than a help,” Godfrey quipped.
Since the contract ended in November 2017, Legislative Management issued one request for proposal, but never awarded a contract based on the responses it received. It will be issuing another request for proposal in the next few weeks, according to Connery.
Bye, who has been calling for legislative leaders to hold hearings on the television network since the fall, said Monday that she wants the Joint Committee on Legislative Management to hold a public hearing and offer input in the request for proposals.
Big decisions about what happens in the state Capitol and with the network should, according to Bye and Godfrey, be made by the legislature’s Joint Committee on Legislative Management, but that committee hasn’t met for six years.
Legislative leaders offered mixed feelings about a meeting.
A spokesman for Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said they have yet to make a decision about a hearing.
A spokesman for House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz said he expects each caucus will assign a staff member to work on the RFP with Legislative Management, like they did the last time.
Staff for Republican legislative leaders did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the subject.
Following Monday’s meeting there was no clear answer for what would happen going forward.