Tempest in the PACT Teapot
Eruption over Public Access Community Television producer's banning from premises roiling airwaves
In the wild, woolly world of Austin's public-access TV – where unofficial mascot Alex Jones is invariably blowing hot air across one of three available channels – it's normally not news that the natives are restless. But the vitriol erupting over a Public Access Community Television producer's banning from the premises is roiling the airwaves beyond the usual atmospheric consternation.
In late December, longtime PACT producer Nick Papatonis provided his latest program to the studio. A colorful figure often agitating on First Amendment issues, Papatonis was one of the independent journalists who sued the city after being denied press access to the Ku Klux Klan rally at City Hall in 2005; he also notably coordinated local relief for Hurricane Katrina evacuees on behalf of adopted Austinite Sandra Bullock. His latest production, Goose Bump City, was a collection of hip-hop interviews and performances; on Dec. 21, 2007, he left PACT studios with a programming contract stating when it would air (Dec. 23 and a handful of times thereafter) and settled in for the showing.
Except his show never aired – as a power outage hit the studio Dec. 23, affecting its computerized playback server. While the crash only took PACT off the air for 15 minutes, General Manager Garry Wilkison says it meant the shows most recently uploaded to PACT's digital archive unit didn't air as scheduled – including Goose Bump City.
Papatonis, via e-mail, demanded to know why his show never aired. One characteristic dispatch – addressed to PACT leadership, but also to City Council and city staff, plus several media outlets – reads in part (all spellings verbatim):
"IT REALLY ANNOYS ME AT PACT'S INCOMPETANCE
THERE ARE SERIOUS PRONLEMS AT AUSTIN ACCESS TV MY SHOW GOOSE BUMP CITY WAS SCHEDUALED TO RUN TODAY ...
NO SHOW AIRED ...
WHY OS THE CITY OF AUSTIN EVEN PAYING YOU AND PACT TO RUN THINGS?
PLEASE TELL ME."
Eventually, Goose Bump City aired three times, starting Dec. 27. (Surprisingly, City Manager Toby Futrell responded personally, asking PACT Executive Director Linda Litowsky to "please look into Nick's concern.")
On Jan. 7, Litowsky responded. Citing the power outage, Litowsky chided Papatonis for having "hastily concluded and widely reported" his show didn't air due to negligence. Saying his statements served to "harm and degrade needed civic and community support for public access," Litowsky then made a somewhat unorthodox request, asking Papatonis "to issue a public apology and retraction of the statements made about PACT." Her demand was received about as well as could be expected: On Jan. 15, Papatonis apologized "FOR PACT NOT HAVING A BACK UP PLAN WHEN THE PLAYBACK COMPUTER BREAKS CAUSE NO ONE KNOWS HOW TO RUN IT." The mea culpa concluded, "HOW CAN I SUPPORT YOU WHEN YOUR A MEAN EVIL PERSON?" (Citing the possibility of litigation, Litowsky declined to discuss her request for an apology.)
At the studios Jan. 22, Litowsky summoned Papatonis into a meeting, which he furtively recorded. After arguing over responsibility for his show not airing, Litowsky effectively banned Papatonis from the studios, telling him, "If you feel so strongly about who we are here and how we do things and what we are, you are not welcome here." She also offered to refund his producer fees.
After hiring an attorney, Papatonis sent a demand letter to city attorney David Smith on Jan. 25, threatening to sue the city and PACT if he can't continue to broadcast. The city legal department responded, assuring him that PACT will "continue to broadcast" his material. Yet the subsequent letter from PACT came with a huge caveat: While agreeing to air programs Papatonis produces on his own, Litowsky said, pending final approval from the PACT board, Papatonis' onsite producer privileges are being revoked. "Your prior and continuing actions violate the Policies and Procedures governing producers," both general and "severe" violations of using abusive language, and acting "in a way that seriously disrupts the normal operation of PACT." Litowsky continues, "it is the position of PACT's Management and Staff and at their discretion, that your actions warrant expulsion." While Papatonis and his supporters frame the debate as a free-speech argument, PACT management says Papatonis' First Amendment rights don't include use of their studios.
With the conflict seemingly catalyzing some other longstanding producers' gripes, PACT's February board meeting certainly won't lack for excitement. One has to wonder whether cooler heads could've procured different results – yet considering the rambunctious producers at a station founded on the warts-and-all expression of free speech, that's tantamount to Perry Logan joining the Young Republicans or Clear Channel buying domestic-distro rights for Channel 16 favorite Smash the State. Circulating the letter from Litowsky expelling him from the station, Papatonis titled it, "LOOKS LIKE WE ARE GOING TO FEDERAL COURT."
*Oops! The following correction ran in the February 15, 2008 issue: In a News item last week, "Tempest in the PACT Teapot," Feb. 8, we misspelled Public Access Community Television Executive Director Linda Litowsky's name. The Chronicle regrets the error.