|C-SPAN's chief Brian
Lamb was quick to respond: “We’re disappointed
to learn that despite 32 years of experience with televising its sessions and
in an age of ubiquitous cameras in political life, the House of Representatives
has chosen not to allow C-SPAN’s cameras into its chamber to cover its
Lamb is quite right about his organization's illustrious history as a nonprofit
organization funded by the cable-TV industry. Providing gavel-to-gavel coverage
of both the House and Senate, as well as access to the recently unveiled website
of clips from the extensive C-SPAN archives, are valuable ways of preserving
However, Speaker Boehner was wise to turn down C-SPAN's latest request.
In his appeal, Lamb is making a distinction between the long-running coverage
furnished via a video feed controlled by Congress itself, and the new proposal
under which C-SPAN would add its own robotic cameras to provide "a more
complete picture of the legislative process."
C-SPAN has made similar requests in the past – to both Democratic and
Republican Speakers – and has continually been rebuffed. But in the latest
exchange with Boehner, Lamb quotes the Speaker himself when he noted, "Since
the first New England town meetings of the colonial era, open government has
been a hallmark of American democracy."
The issue, however, is not open government. The likely product of coverage
that goes beyond a standard shot of the podium is members yawning or even dozing
off; colleagues chatting when it would be polite to listen; the likelihood of
seeing members tapping away at their Blackberries, and, of course, a sea of vacant
seats. Also likely is the fiddling with these images on YouTube and programs
like "The Daily Show," not to mention in heavily-edited campaign ads.
Such a result would serve no real educational purpose, nor would it shed additional
light on secret deal-making behind closed doors.
It can be argued, as Lamb presumably would, that the presence or absence of
members and their degree of attentiveness is relevant. But such information,
when provided only by pictures, can be misleading; commentators would be needed
to explain why members might be absent – and before long C-SPAN would become
just an extension of the commercial networks.
Lamb argues that under his plan, viewers would see a “journalistic product,” rather
than a static feed. It’s an issue for legitimate debate – the very
sort of thing the U.S. Supreme Court wrestles with during its periodic evaluation
of possible TV coverage during its public sessions. The Justices, wisely, have
thus far said no.
Along with the desire for “transparency” on Capitol Hill is the
need for greater civility and decorum, particularly in the House. Allowing C-SPAN’s
coverage to inch toward television’s omnipresent “reality” shows
would not keep the more undisciplined members in check.
To its critics, C-SPAN’s bland coverage of Congress is at times like
radio with pictures. We hear what is being argued from the podium without benefit
of surveying the chamber for reaction.
But that is also one of C-SPAN’s greatest virtues. Despite its vital
contributions, C-SPAN is not really a journalistic endeavor in which material
is sorted and edited to create an objective summary. Rather, C-SPAN is the keeper
of a vital, unedited public record.
During major events, when multiple networks provide coverage, many viewers
gravitate to C-SPAN for the express purpose of avoiding the cutaway shots and
split-screen distractions provided by commercial broadcasters.
The public is best served by preserving not only the decorum of Congress,
but also the decorum of C-SPAN’s coverage.
(c) Peter Funt. This column was originally distributed by the Cagle Syndicate.