Friday, November 26, 2010

Keep the Lights On @ NJN

Editor's Note: I originally submitted this as a Letter to the Editor to every NJ newspaper I could think of.  As a result, I took a slew of 'confirmation calls' last week and, today, received a call from my in-laws that the first submission finally made it to print in The Trenton Times.  Afterwards I learned that the letter also appeared in the Star Ledger on Thanksgiving Day.   

The one question I kept being asked by every editor that called was, "Do you have any personal connection to NJN."  I chose to answer honestly: "Every taxpaying citizen of New Jersey has a personal connection to NJN that stretches from their wallet to the State House."  It is a fact that without NJN, New Jersey voters will have no connection to their own representatives.  As I argue below, in the spirit of honest and open government (let alone good financial practice) the Governor has the responsibility to ensure that the station's transition to private ownership is a smooth one that does not allow the spotlight on his office to go out.

This New Year could usher in a new era in the relationship between New Jersey voters and their state representatives, one that would be darker and more distant than ever.

If the State moves forward with the Governor’s plan to cut all funding to NJN as of January 1, we will no longer see the happenings of the State House on television. Debates will be held, laws and budgets will be passed behind doors closed to the cameras that were once the lifeline between voters and elected representatives. In the information age, our most vital lifeline to real time information—New Jersey Network—will be cut off.

How can this possibly be in the best interests of New Jersey?

With barely a month to go before 147 workers are added to the already overburdened unemployment rolls of the state, a number of options are being thrown around. It is reported that the Governor favors holding onto the valuable FCC licenses in order to ensure that the state’s 40 year, multi-million dollar investment in NJN be used to produce Jersey-centric programming by a new entity.

Who this entity is, we have yet to find out.

The Governor seems to favor the idea of a possible takeover by WNET, a public television station that receives annual funding from New York State. Follow the money and you have to ask, how Jersey-centric could that relationship possibly be? WNET’s merger with Long Island PBS station WLIW was filled with empty promises of maintaining Long Island-centric programming. If WNET couldn’t even stay faithful to their fellow New Yorkers, what chance would Jersey stand in such a merge?

It is New Jersey money that purchased the licenses, towers, facilities, and equipment, and that helped to produce 40 years of Emmy Award winning programming. Whether by tax dollars or donations, since its inception NJN has been a station of the people, by the people of New Jersey. The Governor isn’t telling us it was a bad investment; we just don’t have the money to continue.

Now, the Governor is right; our state is in tough financial times. But when money is tight, shouldn’t cutting the lines of communication between government and her citizens be at the bottom of the list?

Assembly Speaker Oliver has said that she “will not sleep unless NJN stays on the air as of January,” and neither should her fellow representatives. Allowing NJN to go dark means putting their credibility at stake. Decisions must be made that ensure the survival of NJN as a Jersey-centric media outlet. One that, in the interest of keeping our residents in-jobs and in-state, continues to employ the talented staff that has faithfully brought this state to life over the airwaves.

After all, who will be able to stand guard if the lights go out?

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