It’s hard to think of two communication platforms more different than C-SPAN and Twitter.
The former is a 32-year-old cable television network whose core mission is long-form coverage of news events – daylong Congressional hearings, unedited press conferences, and live coverage of House and Senate sessions that can run for hours.
The latter is technologically incapable of communicating any statement longer than 140 characters.
But the television network quietly has begun allowing its viewers to peek at some of the political communication in the Twitterverse. For the past several months, C-SPAN2 has filled the breaks during Senate debates by displaying tweets from members of Congress. The real-time Twitter feed scrolls down the television screen, incorporating anything that Senate or House members tweet from their official government accounts.
“C-SPAN’s public service mission is to show Americans what’s happening in Washington,” said Howard Mortman, the network’s communications director. “We see Twitter as another way that members of Congress are communicating with the public, and we want to be showing that as well.”
During a typical week, the Twitter feed might pop up on C-SPAN2 every couple of hours. The network displays it during “quorum calls,” breaks in the floor proceedings that eat up about a third of the time that the Senate is in session. Previously, C-SPAN filled the gaps with classical music and video of the empty chamber. Now, in addition to the Mozart or Brahms, viewers can read a mish-mash of politicians’ tweets concerning legislative issues and other subjects.
“Today’s msg to China is clear – we’re fed up w/ their trade practices, particularly their currency practices,” read a tweet from New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer that scrolled down the C-SPAN screen as the Senate broke for a quorum call during a September debate on a trade bill.
During the same break, viewers saw other tweets that were unrelated to the Senate debate. “President plays political games to advance a wireless network,” read one from Minnesota Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann. A few minutes later, Delaware Democratic Rep. John Carney issued, “Congrats to @Summit_Aviation on the opening of a new hangar and paint facility today.”
“We are not moderating, and we’re not editing what members say via Twitter, because we don’t edit what they’re saying on camera on the floor,” Mortman said in a phone interview. “They could be tweeting out anything.”
In fact, no human eyes at all review the Twitter stream before it’s broadcast. C-SPAN uses Twitter’s API — an automated interface — to access the official accounts of members and Congressional committees. The network doesn’t include tweets from members’ personal accounts or campaign accounts. (Nor does C-SPAN relay any pictures that politicians may tweet, intentionally or unintentionally.)
“C-SPAN has been a great adopter of Twitter,” said Adam Sharp, a former C-SPAN executive producer who now works as Twitter’s government liaison.
In Sharp’s former job with the cable network, he helped plan C-SPAN’s first major effort to incorporate tweets into live event coverage – President Obama’s State of the Union Address earlier this year. While C-SPAN’s main channel provided conventional coverage of the speech, C-SPAN2 viewers saw a split-screen with the President in a small box and tweets from members of Congress scrolling below.
“It almost felt like you were watching a conversation,” Sharp said. “The President would say something, and the members of Congress would comment on it. It was a very compelling experience.”
C-SPAN’s embrace of Twitter is yet another sign of social media’s growing role in political dialogue. Even a news source that provides gavel-to-gavel telecasts of Congressional sessions and exhaustive coverage of other Washington events feels it’s missing something if it doesn’t also pass along what newsmakers say online.
“It shows how traditional media and social media are merging more and more,” said Marcus Messner, who teaches social media journalism at Virginia Commonwealth University. “For politicians, it gives them another platform — even if they don’t have a speech scheduled or they don’t have a public appearance — to still be in the public eye.”
It also gives C-SPAN viewers an occasional glimpse into Capitol backrooms where news occurs even while nothing happens in the chamber. During the April negotiations to avert a government shutdown, viewers learned from the on-screen Twitter feed that leaders had reached a deal about a half-hour before C-SPAN aired the official announcement.
Still, like much of C-SPAN’s gavel-to-gavel Congressional coverage, the Twitter stream often is slow moving and mundane. One morning a couple weeks ago, a Florida congressmen’s tweet about a health fair in his district remained on screen for more than four minutes. A Maryland congresswoman’s shout out about her “Gr8” visit to a community college carpentry class received more than two minutes of air time. And many members’ tweets contain links that, of course, are impossible to click on a TV screen.
Meanwhile, Messner has another concern about broadcasting tweets on television. He worries that if the practice spreads, Twitter will lose its personal touch and become just another venue for politicians to issue boilerplate public statements.
“As soon as politicians know that their tweets are shown live on television, they’ll become more careful about what they’re tweeting,” Messner said. “I think that’s regretful, because social media gives politicians a chance to engage with community.”
C-SPAN spokesman Mortman said he’s heard little feedback from viewers about the on-screen Twitter stream, but he said Senate and House members have noticed it and are eager to be included. More than 450 members and committees currently participate.
“It’s getting attention,” Mortman said. “We’re trying to keep up with all the members who are adding Twitter accounts.”