Air war 

In Benton, a father’s anger sparks a row over public access content.

McMAHAN: Won't stop airing video depositions on Benton's public access channel.
  • McMAHAN: Won't stop airing video depositions on Benton's public access channel.

In my experience, public access television is almost wholly made up of “Wayne's World” rip-offs, discussion groups with more awkward silences than actual discussion, long discussions about city affairs and wannabe Larry Kings interviewing people you've never heard of. Down in Benton, however, they've managed to whip up a real-life feud over their public access TV Channel 12, with some of the city's most prominent movers and shakers involved in the growing mess.

At odds are the controversial programming choices of Benton Community Access Association president Johnny McMahan. In April 1998, McMahan's son was killed in a freak playground accident at a Benton elementary school after he was hit in the chest with a tetherball, which caused his heart to stop. In 2001, McMahan filed a negligence lawsuit against the insurance carrier for Benton Public Schools, alleging — among other things — that the boy lay on the ground eight minutes before anyone called 911. McMahan and his wife eventually settled out of court in 2003, but his bitterness continued to grow over what he says was an uncaring and evasive attitude exhibited by teachers and school officials during the deposition phase.

“It was very mentally devastating,” McMahan said, “to sit across from teachers and school board members, and they acted like this was a bird that fell out of a tree. That's how they acted. They were uncaring. Some of them acted like it was no big deal to them.”

Though the settlement forbids him from revealing the monetary amount he received, McMahan held on to copies of the videotaped depositions. In 2005, he became president of the BCAA, which runs Benton's all-volunteer cable access Channel 12. Then, in August 2007, McMahan departed from the standard Channel 12 fare of parades, City Council meetings and fire department openings and started running depositions from his case on Channel 12, including testimony by teachers and school board members.

McMahan said he waited so long to air the depositions because he didn't want to be accused of trying to win sympathy and a bigger settlement. Asked if airing the tapes constitutes an abuse of his position, McMahan said that if any viewer wants to run depositions from a lawsuit they were involved in, he'll be happy to put them on the air.

“The school system never apologized, they never admitted anything,” McMahan said. “And I want the public to see what I was up against when I was trying to find out what happened to my son. They were cold-hearted.”

Since the depositions aired in August — McMahan ran them again in November and December 2007 — McMahan's programming choices have caused quite a hue and cry in Benton. At least one city council member, Doug Stracener, has called for a complete overhaul of the rules and regulations that govern what can be shown there.

Stracener said while McMahan has the legal right to run what he wants on the publicly funded Channel 12, “it's a question of taste.” He denies McMahan's assertion that he's “carrying water” for some of the influential Benton citizens whose depositions have aired on Channel 12. He has since submitted a re-draft of the new regulations, after amending them to address what McMahan said were restrictions on content. Those proposed new regulations include a rule against airing the same content more than once in seven days. “It gives him his forum,” Stracener said. “Someone can't just say something and then beat people over the head with it … I tell everyone I talk to, ‘We've crossed the bridge. They're going to be shown,' ” Stracener said. “But, hopefully, if [the new regulation] gets done, they'll be shown once or twice and then they're done.”

If his proposed rules don't pass, Stracener said he'll take up the issue of public access channel content when Benton takes up the issue of a franchise agreement with Charter Cable later this year.

“We owe it to the citizens to put Benton in the best light I think [Channel 12] needs to be more accessible to everyone. They say it's accessible to everyone, but it's not … they want a free-for-all, as long as it's their free-for-all.”

Any questions?





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