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.
More recently, C-SPAN did a wonderful job of covering the Iowa caucuses. On caucus night, it broadcast the deliberations of a caucus at a YMCA in Dubuque. This was the most gripping reality TV I have watched in years. Whoever directed the show deserves an Emmy. Several video crews tracked the lead organizers for each of the Democratic candidates. We could see them recruiting supporters and haggling with the other campaigns–sometimes quite desperately. There was emotion; there was drama. How could a viewer not share the sadness when the most ardent Gephardt backer–a young woman who had tried mightily to persuade her neighbors to back the Missouri congressman–trudged over to join the John Edwards crowd after her man failed to reach the 15 percent threshold? This was far more gripping than watching some prescreened make-believe real person get voted off an island.
C-SPAN makes politics and policy real. It does the same with commentary. As a television pontificator–I’m a contributor to Fox News Channel–I’ve grown accustomed to debating world-changing matters in two-minute snippets. C-SPAN, though, affords pundits, journalists, analysts, politicians, and authors whole swaths of time–from half an hour to 60 minutes–to discuss the crucial matters of the day. With no commercial interruptions. This can lead to the sort of in-depth conversations that are nearly impossible on many cable news shows. (Then again, there was the time I appeared on C-SPAN with conservative author David Horowitz for a full hour. That was more of a food-fight than an enlightened exchange of competing views, mainly because he kept shouting and accusing me and other war-in-Iraq skeptics of trying to destroy the United States. He even decried The Nation for having used French words on a recent cover. This was not a debate; this was a therapy session for Horowitz.)
Brian Lamb, who founded C-SPAN, is a true visionary. In 1977, he first pitched the idea of a public affairs network to the cable television industry. He then persuaded the House to let television cameras into its chamber. (It took the Senate nine years to catch up.) In all this time, he has kept the programming fair and balanced. As an interviewer and moderator, Lamb has played it straight down the middle. My hunch is that he’s a Main Street-kind of Republican. But who knows? First and foremost, he wants a serious discussion that serves the viewer.
Lamb has also been a public affairs missionary. Not only has he expanded the reach of C-SPAN in the media (C-SPAN radio began a few years ago); Lamb has developed an extensive educational component for C-SPAN. The C-SPAN bus brings civics and history to school kids across the nation. Months ago, I participated in a new C-SPAN project: tele-teaching. A poli-sci professor was conducting a class on how Washington works for university students in Colorado, but he was doing it from a studio in C-SPAN’s Washington offices. Thanks to a two-way video flow, he could see his students, as they sat in a classroom watching him–and me–on a video screen. The session worked, and this setup enabled him to bring in a string of Washington guest lecturers for the student’s benefit.
C-SPAN is perhaps the closest-to-perfect Washington (and media) institution there is. Do I say this because it has always been kind to me? (It did put me on Washington Journal to discuss my latest book, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception.) Not entirely. I am an unabashed fan. And as a journalist, I appreciate that C-SPAN makes life easier for those of us who cover politics, Congress, the White House, and public affairs. There are times when I cannot make it to a White House press briefing, a congressional hearing, a campaign event, or a think tank conference. Yet they appear on the little box in my office, and–presto!–I have the information or quote I need.
Twenty-five years old, C-SPAN is thriving. But it does face threats. The Federal Communications Commission has for months been putting off a decision on whether cable systems must give local broadcast stations two channels–one for an analog signal, the other for a digital signal. The point is to ease the transition from analog broadcasting to digital broadcasting. Yet if the FCC does require cable operators to assign two channels to each local broadcaster, that could create pressure on cable systems to dump other cable programming. The folks at C-SPAN fear this rule would cause some maxed-out systems to eliminate C-SPAN or C-SPAN2 to make room for the broadcasters’ extra channels. “We are a niche service that does not provide revenue,” says Bruce Collins, the corporate vice president and general counsel of C-SPAN. “How virtuous do you expect the cable operators to be? People think we’re a public utility that will always be there, but that’s not true.”
Cable systems are not required to carry C-SPAN. They do not offer C-SPAN as a public service. It’s part of most cable menus because there are enough Americans who want to watch their government in action. Cable operators use C-SPAN as a selling point for their services, and they pay C-SPAN for this privilege. C-SPAN, unlike PBS and NPR, receives no government funding and accepts no corporate sponsorships. It relies 100 percent on the license fees paid to it by the cable guys. In fact, Lamb pioneered a business model. He developed a public-interest media organization that is unsubsidized and generates no revenues and found a home for it within the for-profit jungle of the cable television industry. But if cable systems are forced to hand out a second channel to local broadcast stations and conclude they can make more bucks without C-SPAN than with C-SPAN, local citizens could be cut off.
Another threat to C-SPAN materialized just days ago. On March 9, in a narrow vote–12 to 11–the Senate commerce committee barely beat back an effort to extend the decency standards that now apply to broadcasters to all cable programming (with the exception of premium and pay-for-view channels). How could this harm C-SPAN? After all, it’s not as if it airs Howard Stern. But C-SPAN routinely shows events–campaign rallies, protests, and press conferences–where occasionally words deemed “indecent” by the FCC are uttered. That’s what happens in real life. And there have been times when C-SPAN has covered a march or demonstration when a Janet Jackson-like moment has occurred. Lamb’s guiding editorial philosophy has been that viewers in their living rooms should be able to see and hear exactly what they would see and hear if they were sitting in a hearing room or standing on the Washington Mall. But an indecency standard applied to C-SPAN could destroy its commitment to a showing events unedited in their entirety. “We don’t want to edit and pixilate,” Collins says.
Since C-SPAN has become such an essential part of the nation’s political-media infrastructure, it should be able to handle the challenges it now faces. But let’s hope it also continues to expand its (and our) horizons. Oral arguments at the Supreme Court ought to be carried on C-SPAN. Perhaps one day, Lamb will overcome the resistance of the robed ones. And imagine if C-SPAN could somehow facilitate the creation of question time in the U.S. House–when members of Congress could confront the president with queries.
That is raising expectations high. But Lamb and C-SPAN deserve high expectations. Who (besides Lamb) thought that C-SPAN would go so far–and enrich the national discourse so much–when it first started showing House members orating (or bloviating) in 1979? Many happy returns, C-SPAN. The Republic is better for your efforts.
DON’T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN’S BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! The Library Journal says, “Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations….Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough.” For more information and a sample, check out the book’s official website: www.bushlies.com.