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CT-N: Always important, now indispensable

Transparency — a democracy can't function justly without it, and when it falters or is blocked, a spontaneous outcry arises from those who believe government is keeping from them the facts they need. Take for example the criticism of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: While their scientists and medical doctors have been working to defeat the coronavirus pandemic, CDC's messages have been mixed and confusing. Lack of transparency at this moment can be deadly.

Much of the time, however, transparency is a right held in reserve. People expect access to accurate and timely information about government affairs, but until they suspect otherwise, government goes about its day-to-day business while citizens go about theirs.

That changed radically in 2020 for the people of Connecticut. The state legislature's cable channel and webstreaming service, CT-N, became the conduit for urgently needed daily COVID updates from Gov. Ned Lamont. The governor and top administration officials are able to safely hold press conferences and deliver reports on the numbers and directives to combat the pandemic. Video and audio are "pooled" to media outlets. Reporters watch on livestream, like the public, and can ask questions via teleconferencing.

In July, CT-N gave the General Assembly a way to convene safely through videoconferencing. Members were able to vote in special session on urgent matters of police accountability, telemedicine insurance coverage, absentee balloting and insulin pricing from their respective legislative offices.

Without much of a spotlight on itself, CT-N has been key to the handling of the pandemic response. It is all news, all transparency. Its coverage is shot live and transmitted without commentary. When the network's chief focus is gavel-to-gavel coverage of legislative hearings and meetings, as it normally is, the approach has always been comprehensive but deliberately low key. It turns out that CT-N is like Clark Kent, with hidden superpowers to deal with a rolling-out emergency.

CT-N is a public-private partnership of sorts. It is operated by the nonprofit Connecticut Public Affairs Network, modeled loosely on C-SPAN and local cable coverage, but is the property of the state legislature. The Connecticut Mirror in a recent article described how CT-N went from one staff person, robotic cameras and a lot of skeptical legislators at its start 21 years ago to an invaluable public service today, as a non-commercial channel bringing the governor to the people nearly every day of the pandemic.

Along the way, CT-N got tangled in Connecticut's torturous 2017 deficit budget wrangles and, for a year, was run solely by the legislature. It was a year of reruns, often of proceedings that felt pro forma even when live. Fortunately for the state's residents in 2020, negotiations reopened and the public affairs network returned to operate the programming. CT-N is now carried by all cable channels operating in Connecticut, which pay the state a gross receipts tax that indirectly funds the operations. The bill for fiscal year 2020 was by state budget standards almost measley — $2.1 million.

The network and members of the legislature have made good use of what was learned this year with the General Assembly session suspended. Videoconferenced meetings and public hearings are able to be transmitted in real time and are available for later viewing at www.ct-n.com on smart devices.  

The next session is scheduled to start on time in January and to produce the next biennial budget. The always onerous task may be worse than it has been even in the last several budget years because of the recessionary effects of the pandemic. Items that would have been debated this year are still awaiting a turn. And the governor may still be holding nearly daily press conferences on the pandemic. CT-N staff are working with the state Office of Legislative Management on rules and means to make in-person convening safe.

Even without a life-and-death public health emergency, CT-N is a good deal for transparency in government and thus for taxpayers. This year, and probably next, it is priceless.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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