Politics In the Raw
In an era of punditry ad absurdum, C-SPAN's unfiltered approach comes into its own.
By Lou Prato
Lou Prato is a former radio and television news director and a broadcast journalism professor at Penn State University.
Shortly after noon on Monday, March 19, 1979, a 30-year-old, second-term congressman from Tennessee named Al Gore began speaking from the podium on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Gore's speech was the first ever to be televised live from Congress by a newly-created, upstart cable service called Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network, C-SPAN for short. Making note of the historic event, Gore said "television will change this institution" and has "the potential..to revitalize representative democracy."
Some C-SPAN devotees consider those words prophetic. They argue that the cable network's innovative, sometimes relentlessly bland "you are there" coverage of politics and public affairs is having an impact on the political process and shaping political careers.
For example, some speculate that Gore's frequent appearances on C-SPAN throughout the 1980s may have nourished his own political ambitions, contributing to his successful Senate bid in 1984, his run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988, and culminating this year with his vice presidential nomination.
Others downplay C-SPAN's influence, but extoll its civic and journalistic virtues. "There have been no fundamental changes in the institution or the way Congress works," says Michael Robinson, a professor of media and politics at Georgetown University. "C-SPAN is like a library. Libraries do not change the way the world works but they are a real plus for information needed to do that."
C-SPAN's impact on the political process can be debated ad infinitum, but people are talking. And in a television era critics say is marked by seven-second sound bites and celebrity broadcast journalism, an unlikely programming idea has found a faithful following.
Ask Washington media executives about C-SPAN and the superlatives flow.
NBC's Vice President and Bureau Chief Tim Russert calls C-SPAN "the video resource of record."
"It complements us and supplements us," says ABC's Vice President and Washington Bureau Chief George Watson.
"I love it," says Chuck Lewis, Washington Bureau Chief of Hearst newspapers. "I know there are a lot of people in the business like me who go home after dealing with public policy issues all day and we're tired and want a break, yet we turn on C-SPAN to see if there's something we missed... It's a terrific concept that brings us 'inside-the-Beltway' types smack into reality with the public outside of Washington."
The man who created C-SPAN, Chairman Brian Lamb, never thought it would become popular or influential. "I was simply trying to get the cable industry to do a public service by showing, in an impartial way, what makes the government tick," Lamb says.
It didn't hurt that Lamb's idea coincided with the growth of cable, satellites and electronic video technology. Only 19 percent of the nation's homes were wired for cable when C-SPAN began. Today, 61 percent have cable and C-SPAN has a potential audience of 150 million viewers. Because C-SPAN does not carry advertising, it does not subscribe to the Nielsen ratings that other networks use to determine advertising rates.
While some contend that C-SPAN's loyal viewers are a small elite of political junkies, Lamb and others point out that that translates into an audience of opinion leaders and citizens who care about politics. He cites a survey by Statistical Research, Inc. that found 74 percent of C-SPAN viewers voted in the 1990 November elections, compared to only 36 percent of all eligible voters.
That kind of following could be important, especially in this election year when C-SPAN has provided sweeping coverage of state-by-state primary elections, gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions (at a time when the networks reduced coverage), as well as continued televising of the House and Senate proceedings and sundry other political events.
Some say that during the Democratic and Republican primaries, C-SPAN was more thorough, insightful and innovative than the networks and CNN. That view was reflected in a recent Newsweek "Conventional Wisdom Watch." The author chided the networks for "pundit overload" adding, "Honey, find C-SPAN so we can see what's really going on."
Bill Small, former president of NBC News, a long-time CBS News executive and now dean of the Graduate School of Business at Fordham University, says C-SPAN's 1992 primary coverage was "fantastic... If anyone had watched C-SPAN and nothing else they would have had a better sense of the campaign and issues than ever."
C-SPAN does have detractors. Some complain that its programs drone on and on. Others criticize its uncelebrated talk show hosts for not being more critical when questioning guests. Lloyd Grove of the Washington Post, for example, berated Lamb, whom he called "a usually deft and pointed interviewer" for seeming "cowed" and pitching "one softball after another" in an interview last February with former President Richard Nixon.
"I pitch everyone softballs," Lamb responds facetiously.
Visitors to C-SPAN's bustling suite of offices and studios near Capitol Hill can only imagine what it was like in the early days. In 1979, Lamb and his four employees operated out of a small barren room in suburban Virginia, near Washington's National Airport. They shared space with Cablevision magazine – in a building without cable reception.
"Brian couldn't see [the House proceedings]," chuckles Brian Lockman, then the sole technician and now vice president of network operations. "He'd call me on the Hill and ask, 'What's going on now? Who's speaking and what's he saying?' For six months we just took the House feed. We didn't own a single camera, microphone or tape machine. When we did our first news conference off the House floor, and later, for our 'Close-Up' shows, we hired an independent crew."
Those days were not easy, with Lamb fighting the political bureaucracy, network condescension and even the cable industry itself for acceptance. It took him four years to convince a couple of bold cable system owners to begin funding his idea, and another two years to negotiate with reluctant House leaders before the first camera was turned on.
Speaker of the House Thomas "Tip" O'Neill didn't always support television in the House chambers. But sensing that it might improve the image of members and show the House as the dominant branch of Congress, he approved "the experiment" as long as he controlled the cameras and dictated terms. The networks, which wanted their own cameras on the House floor, whined about journalistic independence and accused Lamb and C-SPAN of being government tools. (Even now, Lamb says, "a lot of people believe we are part of the government. Many House and Senate members think they own us.") When C-SPAN began covering congressional hearings in the early 1980s, some members of Congress refused to allow its cameras in the hearing rooms. Some network personnel, meanwhile, tried to sabotage coverage by invoking union rules and intimidating the young C-SPAN technicians. "They were both trying to protect their own turfs," says Mike Michaelson, a C-SPAN vice president, now semi-retired.
Lamb calls Michaelson "the best hire I ever made," and for good reason: Michaelson, who had worked for years in the Senate and House radio-TV galleries, is credited with guiding C-SPAN through the labyrinth of power on Capitol Hill and the bitter trench warfare with the networks.
"The networks were tougher," Michaelson says. "They didn't think we were a bona fide news organization."
George Watson was ABC News' Washington Bureau chief during most of this period. "There's always a problem with the new kid on the block," he says. "We were resentful. It was the same thing with CNN." Watson says his only criticism of C-SPAN now is its boast of being a nonprofit organization. The network may be nonprofit as a business, he says, but it is subsidized by a for-profit cable industry.
It's the network's direct link to the cable industry that disturbs C-SPAN's harshest critics. "C-SPAN has done a great job in everything but the cable policy arena," says Jeff Chester, co-director of the Center for Media Education, a public interest group in Washington that focuses on media policy. "It does a terrible job at covering cable issues and rarely does it have any guests on the call-in or interview shows who are critical of the cable industry. It's been a P.R. bonanza for the cable industry, but its avoidance of issues critical of the industry has been shameful."
Lamb vigorously disputes that charge, pointing out that C-SPAN is frequently prohibited from covering congressional hearings on cable legislation. "I get accused of being a shill for the cable industry," he says, "but that's baloney. No one from the cable industry has tried to influence our programming. And there is no order here not to cover industry issues. Yes, we are solely owned, funded and operated by the industry, but we are strictly a public service."
The confusion over ownership has persisted even as C-SPAN has overcome the initial mistrust and has prospered. To carry the two services, C-SPAN and C-SPAN 2, cable companies pay monthly fees based on their number of subscribers. In 13 years, C-SPAN's budget has swelled from $400,000 to $18 million – a big jump, but still paltry when compared with other networks.
Four years after its humble beginning, C-SPAN became a 24-hour service in 1983. In June 1986, C-SPAN 2 was created to cover the Senate. "They got tired of seeing the House on television in their offices and of the visibility and popularity of House members," says Lamb.
Although C-SPAN carries House and Senate floor proceedings in their entirety, they provide only 15 percent of the network's programming. The rest is filled with hearings, press conferences, seminars and telephone call-in shows. The service carries many events live and repeats them several times.
Because the House and Senate do not always keep to a precise schedule, there are few regularly scheduled programs. These are usually telephone call-in shows aired daily before the congressional day begins and after it ends. "Events in the News" on Monday morning and "Journalists' Roundtable" on Friday morning are two regular programs featuring journalists. Another is Sunday evening's "Book Notes" an interview program with authors. In addition, every Saturday night it airs "America and the Courts," a half-hour program examining the judicial system. On Fridays and Sundays it airs "The Road to the White House," 90 minutes includes "video verite" campaign coverage.
In selecting what it covers and how, C-SPAN's prime objective, according to its mission statement, is to be balanced and impartial in its format and content. Toward that end it hired a communications professor as an outside consultant to help maintain impartiality in everything from camera angles to audience close-ups.
Any employee can make suggestions about where to send the cameras. Each week three different producers attend the daily editorial meeting to "increase the diversity of opinion," says Program Director Terry Murphy. "Everyone at that meeting has equal weight," says Political Editor Steve Scully. "Control room producers and technicians have as much say as Terry."
C-SPAN tends to focus on Washington, but it also ventures outside the Beltway. Recently, it covered the presidential conventions and the National Governors Association convention in Princeton.
C-SPAN also airs international fare, such as a regular Sunday night feature in which Great Britain's prime minister fields questions from members of parliament. It also airs translated newscasts from Russia. On Memorial Day weekend, it broadcast 30 hours of original footage from an April trip to Vietnam when C-SPAN accompanied a Senate delegation looking into the controversy over remaining POWs and MIAs. The program went beyond that issue in its sweeping look at the country almost 20 years after the war ended.
Perhaps the network's most distinctive characteristic is its thoroughness. It carried every minute of the days-long Iran-contra, Keating Five and Clarence Thomas hearings, usually live.
Because there are no commercials, C-SPAN uses the lulls and recesses during those and other hearings to obtain immediate viewer reaction by telephone.
The shows give viewers the opportunity to talk directly to prominent members of government and the media, and the phones never stop ringing.
"They're not afraid to tell you what they think," says Lamb. "I've gotten my share of criticism and that's the beauty of it. People feel they're being heard and treated with respect."
Rayne Pollack, C-SPAN's manager of press relations, says the service, and particularly the call-in shows, are popular because "[C-SPAN] is more like the print media – the same way USA Today is more like television. It expects a level of concentration and participation from its viewers that you don't get from the networks, where you're zapped with blurbs and sound bites."
To help viewers understand how news decisions are made, C-SPAN covers editorial meetings at publications such as USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, Time magazine and the Los Angeles Times. It also has gone backstage at television stations as well. The cameras recently went to the newsrooms of WMUR-TV in Manchester, New Hampshire, when the primaries were in full swing in that state. Some news organizations – including the New York Times and the Washington Post – have refused to let C-SPAN inside their editorial meetings, perhaps for good reason. Editors at Knight-Ridder's Washington bureau were embarrassed in April when they allowed C-SPAN to cover their morning story conference. One of the stories discussed was the court-ordered delay of the execution of convicted killer Robert Alton Harris in California. As the seven senior editors talked about the case, it was obvious that they didn't know Harris had died in the gas chamber more than an hour earlier.
Lamb is particularly rankled by the fact that the Times and the Post won't allow television cameras in their newsrooms.
"Journalists have probably been the most difficult people for access," he says. "The closest we got at the Times was [former Managing Editor] Seymour Topping's office. And our experience at the Post was worse. We were doing an interview with Ben Bradlee as he was retiring as editor and had permission from the P.R. folk to show the newsroom while we talked. But a high editor of the Post came over, put his hands over the lens and pushed the cameraman away. It was quite a scene."
C-SPAN also has been banned from several Washington events, including the annual Gridiron Dinner, which brings together Washington's political and media elite for an evening of off-the-record jokes and satire.
Many journalists, however, are eager to appear on the channel, particularly on the "Journalists' Roundtable." Sarah Trahern, senior call-in producer, schedules at least eight journalists a week. Appearances are restricted to once every three or four months.
It's not always a pleasant experience. "Journalists incur a lot of wrath from viewers who believe they're all part of the Washington establishment," says Trahern.
Public anger over the House Bank scandal was especially intense, Trahern says, and directed at journalists as well as politicians. She remembers in particular viewer confrontations with Dan Thomasson of Scripps-Howard and Marianne Means of Hearst. "It got a little personal. They got tough calls about being in with the government..and being too cozy with the politicians."
The pervasive negative perception of Washington journalists was summed up recently by an anonymous viewer who phoned in to another show. She told moderator Kathy Buckley and Denver Post correspondent Bob Kowalski, "Thanks to C-SPAN, I've learned the press isn't too bright."
C-SPAN continues to look for ways to expand and improve coverage. Susan Swain, senior vice president, heads "C-SPAN 2000," a project to determine how the cable service will change over the next decade.
"We have been asked to come up with a 10-year plan in everything from technology and programming to human resources and financial planning," Swain says. "Most of our employees are under 35 with college degrees... We have to figure out a way to keep them challenged."
Among the network's goals is to take its cameras inside the Supreme Court, a move the justices have resisted. Lamb says it's ironic that "our cameras got inside the Kremlin before our own Supreme Court."
As for now, if there is any lingering doubt about how far C-SPAN has come since its simple beginning, it was dispelled early in the New Hampshire primary campaign last January. The cast of "Saturday Night Live" did a skit satirizing C-SPAN and its lackluster style. Some of the biggest laughs came at the expense of the comedian who portrayed Brian Lamb as a colorless, dull interviewer.
A sign of arrival, yes. But given C-SPAN's success, Lamb will most likely have the last laugh. l