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Editorial: Better view of government

Meetings of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners on YouTube? A year ago, such a concept might have drawn scornful guffaws — or, more likely, baffled expressions from those wondering what in the world a “YouTube” was. But nobody’s laughing now as the commission discusses ways to bring itself into the high-tech information age and give Rowan County residents more ways to keep tabs on their elected officials. Back in those olden days of early 2006, it might have been easy for mainstream America — or at least, the mainstream media — to dismiss sites such as “YouTube” or “Myspace.com” as interesting but ultimately insignificant collections of audio and video clips posted by young people or other technophiles who have way too much time on their hands. Oh, well, when TV first appeared, it was also viewed as an esoteric technology that would never have broad application.

It took TV a few decades to come into its own. In the online world, however, evolution is measured in months, if not minutes. Recently, we’ve seen how the posting of a single video clip can replicate literally hundreds of thousands of times within the space of a few hours and spread like a mutating virus around the world. A video shot at a campaign stop wrecked Sen. George Allen’s re-election bid as he suffered a “macaca moment,” and another clip recorded via cell phone gave the world a firsthand view of former sitcom star Michael Richard’s racist rants.

Although county officials could broadcast their meetings via cell phone footage uploaded to a YouTube site, that wouldn’t provide optimal recording quality or reach the optimal audience. A broadcast on Time-Warner’s public access channel would provide a sharper image for the commissioners, in more ways than one, and reach more of the older Rowan residents who are likely to be interested enough to tune in as elected officials discuss county business. Before pursuing the idea further, however, officials need to get some idea of the potential audience and how much putting this show on the road will cost. Making video available through the existing county Web site also makes sense, providing it can be done at a reasonable cost and gets enough viewership to make it worthwhile. The county also needs to fine-tune the audio-video system it uses within its own chambers to ensure that those in attendance can hear officials plainly and watch supplemental video presentations.

Public officials should take advantage of technology that expands opportunities for citizen participation in government. While television or video exposure may tempt some politicians to grandstand or hog the stage, it’s healthy for the body politic when more of the public’s business is actually done within the public’s view. All the better if it’s a format that might attract younger residents and help cultivate their interest in the workings of government.

Meanwhile, just because a video camera isn’t capturing the action, public officials shouldn’t assume they’re working off stage. These days, you never know when an off-the-cuff comment may be captured via cell phone or minicam and fired into cyberspace.

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