The mud is flying, as a bitter presidential campaign is under way. With eight months remaining until E-Day, commentators are already pointing to the vicious and caustic debate as yet another sign of the coarsening of America’s political culture. The mainstream media hypes the charges and countercharges exchanged by the candidates without fully evaluating them and fixates on who’s up and who’s down (and who is screaming) rather than what’s at stake. With the rise of the cable-news gabfests, there’s more information but not necessarily more understanding. Despite the McCain-Feingold law, special-interest money continues to pour into electoral politics. Democrats are bending, if not breaking, the rules to keep soft-money alive. On the Hill, conservative Republicans are using mob-like tactics to control legislation. Are all the trends in the political-media world negative?
No. In recent decades, there has been one undeniable advance in the land of politics-and-the-media: C-SPAN. On March 19, the cable network that airs the proceedings of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, will turn 25 years old. Anyone who gives a damn about politics, policy, and public affairs ought to wish it a happy birthday and, more importantly, say thank you. They should also pay attention to regulatory and legislative actions that could threaten C-SPAN. More on that below. First, some praise.
C-SPAN has opened up Congress and Washington, broadcasting to the citizenry the (public) workings of the House and Senate: the deliberations on the floor, committee hearings, press conferences conducted by legislators. No longer do Americans have to page through the Congressional Record to see what their representatives have said. They do not have to rely upon reporters to learn what has transpired at a hearing. They can directly witness the actions of the legislative branch–without leaving the couch. The network has covered presidential speeches and showed White House press secretaries spinning and squirming as they conduct their daily press briefings. C-SPAN has also smashed the Beltway border by airing conferences and events sponsored by the various policy and political organizations of Washington. A C-SPAN viewer can become a Washington insider by watching think-tank wonks debate budget policies, the head of the Republican Party address political strategy, and consultants discuss technical changes in campaign-finance law.
And C-SPAN has delivered more than inside-Washington policy and politics. It focuses on books and provides an essential venue for discussions of nonfiction works. ( Book TV on C-SPAN2 airs 48 hours of literary programming each weekend, including the signature show Booknotes.) C-SPAN imported to the United States question time from the British House of Commons, showing Yanks that the Brits were playing hardball long before Chris Matthews came along. And it aired campaign events–uncut and uncensored. Would-be voters who might never see a presidential or congressional candidate up close and personal have been handed front-row seats. They can watch incumbents and challengers speaking at dinners or working the crowd at state fairs. C-SPAN conveys the scripted moments–such as the entire Democratic and Republican presidential conventions–and the unscripted. I remember watching Rep. Dick Gephardt a few years ago on C-SPAN. He was shaking hands at a campaign event, trying to engage with each person he briefly encountered. Whatever anyone said Gephardt found a way to agree and to move on. One man grasped Gephardt’s hand and told him it was essential to get rid of the U.S. Postal Service. Yeah, yeah, Gephardt replied, we can do that. Then he pushed on–a politician on automatic pilot, brilliantly captured by C-SPAN.