LOS ANGELES—On July 14, Southern California's NBC affiliate, NBC4, posted an editorial to its site on the "Prop Zero" blog that essentially called on Los Angelenos to vote for the mandatory condom issue in November without bothering to inform themselves about the issue. I do not know what to call the piece other than extremely disturbing, and its author, "Prop Zero" lead blogger Joe Matthews, seriously misguided.
To be clear, the posts published on "Prop Zero" are marked as opinion pieces, which gives the station plausible deniability for having any responsibility about the opinions expressed, but any such excuse would not fly. TV news operations, unlike newspapers, don't really have dedicated editorial divisions that independently express the station's opinion on issues. I seem to recall newscasts denoting opinion pieces in the past, but I cannot recall seeing one doing it recently, perhaps because the line between opinion and news has become, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent.
As far as nbclosangeles.com goes, however, a search of the site reveals no dedicated section clearly marked as Opinion that reflects the views of the station's management. But "Prop Zero,' a blog whose sole purpose is to educate Los Angelinos about ballot initiatives, is rife with opinion, and thus is serving the same purpose as an editorial department, whether NBC wants to admit it or not.
Moreover, it is easy to imagine that readers of the blog take these opinions as those not just of the author but the station, and, perhaps, of NBC as a whole. That may not be fair, but in lieu of greater clarity on the part of the Los Angeles NBC affiliate, it is what it seems. But even if you don't accept that extension of responsibility, the post itself simply cannot be defended as a responsible point of view for a regular member of the NBC staff.
It's title is, "Does My Ballot Need an 'R' Rating?" The subject matter is, of course, the impending addition of the mandatory condom initiative pushed by AIDS Healthcare Foundation to the county-wide ballot in November. The blog was written in the aftermath of the announcement by county officials that a sufficient number of signatures on petitions had been gathered, though they delayed certifying the issue for the November ballot until some remaining legal issues are looked into.
Matthews' basic point is that the issue is so icky that the less we have to know or think about it, the better.
He opens the piece with a lame joke, however. "If you live in LA, you might not want to take your kids with you when you vote this fall." It's lame because, as he well knows, only words are on ballots, and even if you do bring your kids with you into the voting booth, as I have, they don't have a clue what you're punching unless you choose to tell them.
But underlying his opening comment is the suggestion that even the mention of adult entertainment is an "R" subject. This is, to put it mildly, religious nutbag territory. It's the type of crap that comes from people who don't want Cosmo to be seen at the checkout counter in case the word "sex" shows up on the cover (which is probably every issue). In that world, sex is so shameful that its existence as a fact of life should be hidden away, like a disease. I find that mentality beneath contempt, and trebly so in this instance.
And that's just the opening sentence. In the second sentence, be doubles down on the joke by remarking that maybe an "R" rating should be on this particular ballot. I am quite sensitive to written tone, however, and I do not think he's kidding, even if he wants the reader to think he's in exaggeration mode.
He then moves into the meat of his argument, explaining the purpose of the ballot initiative, and then adds, to underscore the fact that he is a serious commenter, "I don't mean to minimize what is a significant issue for people who work in and around the pornography industry, a significant economic force in Southern California. It's a health issue, and unprotected sex sounds like a bad idea in such circumstances."
Barely into his post, therefore, he has already expressed an opinion on the subject, without having provided a whit of information on which he bases the opinion. It just "sounds" like a good idea on its face. At this point, one might assume, as I did, that an argument in support of that position would be forthcoming, but it is not, because the whole point of the piece is that he does not believe the issue is... well, let's just hear him say it.
"All that said," he stated, "I still wonder if this is something that I, as a voter, really need to consider. I also am not excited about the idea of a big public debate on that issue—in newspapers and on TV news programs that young children might encounter.
"This seems like the sort of thing that should be considered, and enforced if need be, by people who regulate workplaces and monitor public health," he added. "I have no particular expertise in the issues raised by this, nor do I want to develop such expertise. I'm not sure what voters would offer in their judgment on such an issue."
Now, to be fair to Matthews, his larger point seems to be about direct democracy as it is practiced through the ballot initiative process, and regarding that issue, he makes a very good point that I happen to agree with. We live in a republic, in which we elect legislators who are supposed to do the people's business. If we don't like them, we can send them packing. I have always had a problem with politicians who try to use the ballot initiative process to accomplish what they cannot do through compromise and other legislative means. As all Californians know, this is what former Governor Schwarzenegger tried to do, and even though he was soundly rebuffed in his efforts, it exposed the potential dangers of the initiative process.
Indeed, AHF, which has been unsuccessful in Sacramento getting its agenda through to fruition, is itself trying to make an end-run around representative democracy with a direct appeal to voters. In that appeal, however, as AVN has reported, the question of the honesty of the signature gatherers has been raised, and it is a serious one. If a gatherer lies to someone leaving a grocery in order to get their John Hancock, there appears to be no provision by which that lie, and the resulting signature, can be found out and discarded. It is a very serious hole in the ballot initiative process, and one that has no doubt been exploited time and again in this state and others by ideologues trying to get their mandate passed into law. Matthews cites a possible solution.
"Occasionally," he writes, "critics of direct democracy have suggested that some topics be barred from the ballot. Civil rights issues, for example, might be kept off the ballot because it's problematic, at best, for the voters to be allowed to cast ballots to deny someone their rights.
"Another example: perhaps certain tax and spending matters should be kept off ballots, because voters have a strong tendency to support services without approving the tax money to pay for them.
"This measure suggests we have a third category: topics that are simply too sensitive—and adult-rated—for the ballot."
He concludes his piece by admitting, "But that won't stop this measure from making the ballot. So, in the meantime, keep your kids away from dirty movies, and the local election news."
Need it be said, however, that removing certain initiatives from the ballot does not mitigate the responsibility of citizens to hold their representatives responsible for how they act regarding those issues? A level of self-education is still required of citizens if our republic has any hope of keeping from slipping, or further slipping, into an oligarchy. Remarkably, however, Matthews does not seem to take that responsibilty seriously... at least for certain issues.
I might add, if the issue Matthews so desperately wants to avoid—not just for his children's sake (if he has any) but for his own—is so serious, why avoid it? If he paid attention, he would learn that the argument being put forth by the initiative's advocates is that the non-use of condoms is a health issue for the overall community, and not just adult performers. He would also learn that the new law, if passed, could extend far beyond the adult performers he finds so unworthy of consideration. He might also consider the countervailing arguments from members of the adult community who complain bitterly about the way in which this issue is being framed by AHF and others; a framing, I might add, that Matthews seems to have taken as fact without even bothering to consider an opposing view.
Maybe it isn't really just a "health issue," but a First Amendment issue, and a privacy issue. Maybe one day he wakes up to realize that the silly initiative he thought someone else should deal with is encroaching upon his freedoms... or the freedoms he thought he had.
But there is another twist to this story that makes it all the more bizarre and disturbing. It turns out that the station Matthews blogs for is the very same one that went on a witch hunt a few years ago in its zeal to get a hapless parking enforcement official fired for being in the wrong spot at the wrong time and getting caught up—for one minute!—in an impromptu porn shoot on a San Fernando Valley street. No explicit sex, to be sure, but ten seconds of inappropriate behavior by that officer got him fired.
Then, the station continued its "investigation" into the department, with the result that by the time they were through, its top brass were fired and replaced—all because of the porn. They tried the same thing with the Fire Department and some innocuous public filming (again, non-sexual) last year, with less success.
So this is the message NBC4 Southern California is sending to its viewers and readers: we will try to run you out of town for porn, because we can, but don't bother educating yourself about the issue of porn and condoms. It's too yucky and your kids might find out. Just vote "yes" on mandatory condoms and leave the rest to the experts.
I really don't know what you call that, but it certainly isn't democracy.