A recurrent cry among Republicans during their successful campaign to take control of the House of Representatives was for greater transparency in the workings of Congress. Frequently citing the closed-door process by which elements of the healthcare legislation were approved, newly elected members pledged to make their deliberations more open to public scrutiny.
So it may seem contradictory for Speaker John Boehner to have recently rejected a request from C-SPAN, the cable channel dedicated to covering Congress, for permission to provide more intimate and subjective coverage.
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 sessions.”
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 democracy.
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.”
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.
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.
(Peter Funt is a writer and public speaker and may be reached at www.candidcamera.com.)