by Jay A. McCalla

The other night, I settled into my favorite spot on the couch, directly facing a glorious flat-screen TV and made sure my phone was turned off. I had the unexpected pleasure of learning a ton about the candidates running for public office in Upper Merion.

It seems they have a robust sense of public spirit and broadcast a forum with guys and gals running for County Commissioner, District Attorney, County Supervisor and School Board. They made terrific use of their dedicated cable channel to bring democracy and choices into the living rooms of voters and taxpayers.

The wrinkle is that my original intent was to watch Philadelphia’s mayoral debate, but it wasn’t televised. Like the last debate, it was live-streamed. What the heck is that about? Since when is the election of our mayor something we bury on the other side of the “digital divide,” where it’s inaccessible to the poor and those not “computer savvy”? Sure, it was rebroadcast At 10 p.m., but for many folks, that was just too late in the evening.

Ironically, this debate was in the hands of Public television. Yep, the same WHYY that regularly tells us how important they are to the Delaware Valley as they push their tote bags, commemorative recordings and assortment of forgettable tchotchkes. While I still respect them, I wish they were as committed to Philadelphia democracy as they are to “Downton Abbey.”

WPVI was the first to pretend to cover a mayoral debate. Rather than broadcasting over the airways the public licenses to them, they slid the debate onto the Internet – the discount rack of communicators.

Not being a total imbecile (an intermittently debated claim amongst my friends), I understand that TV time is valuable. But, these things happen once every four years. Contrast this with the loss of revenue all local stations suffered by offering their unabated torrent of coverage for Pope Francis. The days weren’t long enough to satisfy the hungry eye of television. No site was too trivial to restrain garrulous commentators from gurgling yet another obsequious observation.

Has our civic conscience been sucked into the many, many potholes that punctuate our street surfaces? I “get” why the Democratic Party does not object – machines thrive on uninformed voters. But, what about the very well-funded Committee of 70. From their own mouths, in their many emails and on their fancy website, they tell us they’re the “watchdog.” FYI, watchdogs are occasionally required to bark.

There’s no shortage of progressive groups that posture as good government (goo-goos, if you recall) groups. But many only produce snarky ennui and radiate “sagacious” cynicism. Concerted, meaningful progressive engagement hasn’t been seen since the Rizzo Charter Change effort.

What about the actual candidates – Jim Kenney and Melissa Murray Bailey? Each would proclaim their commitment to transparency and public engagement. Apparently, they jest.

The weirdest of absurdities is that the City of Philadelphia has its very own TV channel. Who knew? We never had to rely on the kindness of strangers in order to have debates broadcast.

The embarrassing images of Kenney shuffling from station to station, trying to interest somebody – anybody – in broadcasting mayoral debates was avoidable. Of course, this raises a whole new batch of questions about the staffing, cost and purpose of owning a channel that gets such rare use that politicians – politicians, mind you – forget we have it.

Our reason for great concern is that we continue to miss great opportunities to engage the public, boost our stunningly low voter turnout and enliven our democracy.

On a positive note, Upper Merion seems to be doing great.

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