Our democracy is founded on the premise of local autonomy, and municipal government is the lifeblood of any city or town, designed to offer services to the public consistent with the values of government by and for the people. In a similar way, public media—through our mission of public service—provides our community with access to local news and information through independent journalism that covers and reports on our elected officials and civic leaders. But we seldom see the day-to-day operations of city government that are a quiet part of democracy in action. Spend any given day at your local City Hall and you’ll find dedicated public servants handling requests to solve problems ranging from downed trees to housing issues, marriage licenses to elder care issues and sanitation to road maintenance.
City government serves the public in extraordinary ways that are often taken for granted. “City government touches directly all aspects of our daily lives more than any other institution,” renowned documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman told me in a recent conversation along with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh.
We were talking about Wiseman’s new film (his 45th!), City Hall, that has its broadcast debut tomorrow on GBH 2. City Hall is a four-and-a-half hour look behind the scenes of Boston’s city government serving nearly 700,000 diverse citizens. A network of caring public servants works to keep Boston running while grappling with pressing issues like racial justice, affordable housing, climate action and homelessness.
It is appropriate that public media would be a home for this and most of Wiseman’s films. An informed citizenry—one that has regular access to the debates and decisions of city councils, state legislatures, school boards and development and planning commissions —is necessary for a government to be responsive. For example, GBH’s Boston Public Radio program regularly provides listeners direct access to local officials in its popular “Ask the Mayor” and “Ask the Police Commissioner” series. Without public media and strong local reporting, it is far more difficult for voters to make prudent decisions about local legislation and budgeting or to hold local elected officials accountable.
Authentic storytelling is at the heart of public media and stories unfold every day within a city’s daily business. Each day, a diversity of citizens make their voices heard at town meetings, forums and within hearing rooms within City Hall itself, in support of advancing equity and opportunity. “Public service is about people, I want to humanize everything I do as mayor, so I share my stories so people feel better about their challenges,” Mayor Walsh told me.
Wiseman walked the halls for 10 weeks in 2018 and 2019 and followed trash collectors, police officers, firefighters, building inspectors—all the ways people connect with government. He went to meetings about budgets, veterans’ affairs, the opioid crisis, women’s rights, disability access and more. He documented the variety of ways the city administration enters into civil discourse with the citizens of Boston on issues such as racial justice, addiction, affordable housing, climate action and homelessness.
In City Hall, Wiseman reminds us that democracy is in evidence every day through the people who make up our local government to make life better for all of us. “I respect the contract between the city and its citizens,” Wiseman told me.
In this era where this an astonishing array of media content available, public media is the only media solely dedicated to the public good, telling stories of ordinary people, ensuring diverse voices are heard and therefore enabling democracy.
Tune in to City Hall on GBH 2, YouTube TV on December 22 at 8pm. It will be available for streaming on the PBS Video App for the next four weeks.