The dismissal of the news director at Loudoun County's cable TV operation sparked complaints this week from the fired employee and some local officials that programming has been slanted to favor Loudoun Board of Supervisors Chairman Dale Polen Myers.
An attorney for former news director Kathleen Hazelton, who left Cablevision of Loudoun earlier this month, said Myers complained repeatedly about news content and that management insisted on reviewing and approving all stories dealing with Myers. The attorney, Michael Horwatt, said that Hazelton regularly fought efforts to "censor" content and that Myers's complaints set the stage for Hazelton's dismissal.
"Management made it clear in no uncertain terms that Myers was their candidate and also made it clear that the news was to be covered accordingly," Horwatt said. "There had been a history of attempted censorship . . . to transform the station into a proxy for Dale Myers."
Cablevision officials declined to say why Hazelton was fired, citing company policies requiring confidentiality. But Cablevision executives denied slanting local programming to benefit Myers and said they were not aware of any requirements that stories about her receive special approval from management.
"There is no corporate policy slanting the news in any direction," said Noel Brown, vice president and general manager of Cablevision. "The purpose . . . is to give as evenhanded as possible a view of events."
The dispute between Hazelton and Cablevision comes at a time when officials with Loudoun County, the Town of Leesburg and other localities are considering whether to approve the pending sale of the cable operation to Adelphia Communications Corp., the country's fifth-largest cable provider.
Several local officials said concerns over bias, raised by Hazelton's dismissal, would lead them to look closely at that sale of the Loudoun operation, which has about 30,000 subscribers. Horwatt said he anticipates that Hazelton's dismissal and questions of bias will be aired during any public hearings on the sale.
The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to take final action on the cable sale in September. County staff members said the supervisors will need to look at two issues: whether Loudoun wants to purchase the cable system and, if not, whether Adelphia has sufficient resources to purchase it. The supervisors have not indicated an interest in purchasing the cable operation.
At a meeting Tuesday, the Leesburg Town Council delayed taking one of the preliminary steps to approve the sale after Vice Mayor B.J. Webb said she was concerned about the network's alleged relationship with Myers.
Myers did not return telephone messages left Tuesday and yesterday at her home and office.
Hazelton anchored a half-hour nightly news broadcast on cable Channel 3, which regularly includes comments from Myers about board business. In addition, Myers appears on a half-hour interview show that is taped once every two weeks and is replayed daily. Webb said it was unfair to provide so much air time to the chairman when she is a candidate running for reelection.
Max Kipfer, chief operating officer of Benchmark Communications, Cablevision's parent company, said the half-hour program was "an information show."
"It's a show that the current chairman of the board does for us. . . . Whoever the chairman of the board is would have that show," Kipfer said.
Loudoun Supervisor Scott K. York (R-Sterling), who is running against Myers for the chairman's job, said he has not been able to get much air time.
"They've been bowing to her for 3 1/2 years now," York said. "If they're censoring news stories, then perhaps we ought not approve this deal."
Hazelton, who had been news director for Cablevision for 2 1/2, declined to comment. Horwatt said she was told she was fired for repeating something Myers had told her in an interview to others. He said she called Planning Commissioner Alfred P. Van Huyck (Blue Ridge), who was considering running for chairman, to verify something Myers had told her. When Hazelton was called by a local newspaper, she gave details of the interview with Myers, asking that Channel 3 be credited.