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Public-Service Campaigning

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 7/26/2000

When we read about state-controlled media in Iran, Indonesia, or the former Yugoslavia, we can only shake our heads in dismay. When we read about state-controlled media in Maryland, we just wonder why they run so many British shows. We don't normally worry about our public broadcasters being exploited by the political elite.So imagine my shock when I saw on Maryland Public Television what looked a lot like a campaign ad for Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. There was KKT, bending over to chat with schoolchildren, grinning her Kennedy grin while (in voice-over) earnestly talking about education. Isn't this a little early for the 2002 elections?

What I saw was, in fact, a promotional spot for Ready to Grow, described in the Townsend spot's fine print as "an educational service supported by Maryland Public Television." In a nutshell, Ready to Grow is MPT's initiative to encourage grade-school teachers to make use of public TV's educational programming.

I told Jeff Hankin, MPT's vice president for marketing, that I thought the piece looked like a pretty good campaign spot for Townsend. He almost agreed. "In another year, at another time, it probably would have been," he said, but he noted that it's not airing during an election season. At such time, he said, the spot would fall under the Federal Communications Commission's equal-time regulations.

As Hankin explains it, MPT is exploiting Townsend, not the other way around. "Basically, we're a state agency," he said, "and any state agency likes to have visible state officials endorsing its programs."

A colleague of mine dismisses the ad as "one of the perks of incumbency," like getting your name up on construction placards or bus-stop benches. But it's a very useful perk for Townsend, a likely gubernatorial candidate who has serious image problems in connection with the Department of Juvenile Justice's recent boot-camp scandal. The ad got her face, voice, and kid-friendly thoughts in front of thousands of likely voters, and did so at MPT's expense. Eat your heart out, Dutch Ruppersberger!

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