Should the media get live cameras in the House? For C-SPAN, it’s a battle long fought — and lost

June 23, 2016
Category: Ethics & Trust

The live image on C-SPAN wobbled late Thursday morning and lacked its normal clarity as Rep. Ben Lujan of New Mexico raised a distinctly rhetorical question on the U.S. House floor.

“Why didn’t C-SPAN turn the cameras on” when a Democratic sit-in protest over gun control legislation began nearly 24 hours earlier?

The answer was simple: “It’s not C-SPAN that makes the decision. The decision to turn the cameras on, to turn on the microphones, in the House chamber is a decision made by the Speaker of the House.”

So C-SPAN was left to rely, as it made abundantly clear at the bottom of the screen, on “LIVE Facebook video from Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas.” Yup, it was dependent on a guy’s smartphone, explaining the occasional swaying of the picture.

It was perhaps fitting that Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York would later quote from Shakespeare (as opposed to Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida, who opted for Springsteen, in particular “Land of Hope and Dreams”). When it comes congressional control of those cameras, a vaguely Shakespearean line is apt: ‘Twas ever thus.

Indeed, bipartisan resistance to full and independent video coverage dates to 1977, with the initial House floor debate on letting in cameras. They would start in the House two years later, and in the Senate in 1986 (a young Al Gore gave the first floor speech there on the topic). But the resistance to independent control has really never changed much at all.

It comes down to just that, control, and the desire to avoid what members think could be “embarrassment” (and this from a body with a single-digit approval rating among the American public).

It was why, despite C-SPAN’s clearly stated qualms, the original deal on coverage that persists insisted that the cameras only focus on an individual speaker. No reaction shots or panning the House or Senate chambers, lest members be ridiculed for reading a paper, not paying attention, chatting with chums or dozing off.

It wasn’t until 1984 that the first dust-up played out, notes Robert Browning of Purdue University, who oversees the C-SPAN archives located at the university in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Back then, Democratic Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill was furious with two firebrand young Republican lawmakers — Georgia’s Newt Gingrich, himself the future Speaker, and Pennsylvania’s Bob Walker — broke the rules by ordering the cameras to pan the chamber to show that it was empty as they, in his mind, showboated by bashing him and his party one evening.

Then, as now, the people operating the cameras and control room are House congressional employees situated in the House recording studio. Then, as now, C-SPAN regularly requested a change in the system.

Anytime there was a new Speaker of the House, C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb would make a formal request to privatize the operation or otherwise shift control and expand converge.

He would ask that C-SPAN have its own cameras and cameramen. He later offered to serve as a pool and give other networks access to the video.

“We tend to make ‘access requests’ (putting our own cameras in the chamber, sometimes with other requests as well) with changes in leadership,” said Susan Swain, the network’s co-president and Co-CEO.

“So we approached Newt Gingrich in 1995, and later Speaker Pelosi. Both speakers were politely responsive (Gingrich tasked an internal working group to look at our request); (Nancy) Pelosi took a meeting with us to listen. But both initiatives were destined to go nowhere. The House group, led by then Congressman Pete Hoekstra (of Michigan), had a few meetings, then petered out. Our meeting with Speaker Pelosi helped us get access to online votes, but nothing happened on camera request.”

Republican and Democratic House leaders always say no. Both parties have turned off cameras and microphones to thwart the opposition. When she was Speaker, Democrat Pelosi of San Francisco fell back on the argument that the cameras were meant as a de facto video version of the Congressional Record, the print history of all spoken words, not journalism vehicles.

Leaders once raised the notion of giving Lamb what he wanted but with a caveat: There would be an area of the House floor roped off and not to be shown. Congressmen could have private conversations there without intrusion. Lamb said no.

For nearly 40 years, the underlying anxiety is the same, namely a suspicion that “the media” won’t treat them fairly.

To that extent, concurs Browning, it’s a bit like the position of U.S. Supreme Court for why it won’t let cameras into their august courtroom. It would disrupt the sanctity of the proceedings, it claims.

The absurdity of the congressional policy can be underscored even in moments of celebration. Thus, when Republican Speaker John Boehner resigned from the House last year, his farewell included lots of colleagues getting up to say what a great guy he was.

“But you’d never see reaction shots of Boehner,” said Browning. “Once in a great while they do it, but rarely.”

The raucous (by congressional standards) sit-in by the Democrats was interrupted very early Thursday when House Speaker Paul Ryan gaveled the House back into session for some actual business, if not the gun control legislation at the heart of the protest.

As he did, he underscored rules that while in session, no other recording devices could be used, which presumably includes smartphones. The press association that oversees the rules of TV, radio and print coverage even put out a memo that reminded members that those regulations pertain to them, too.

Unlike a ball game, playground or county fair, you can’t use a smartphone or take video or still photos in either chamber. The House and Senate definitions of access are more limited than those of the media.

But with Ryan adjourning the session, the sit-in continued in force, with the subsequent reliance on social media to memorialize it since the cameras were turned off. It was shaky at times and, at least once, a C-SPAN announcer indicated they’d lost their social media feed.

It was restored when New York City congressman Carolyn Maloney went to the podium Thursday afternoon and drolly praised a new TV network, D-SPAN, as in Democratic-SPAN. She thanked those who had used social media to make their protest readily available to viewers.

But, of course, the ruling Republicans weren’t there to hear it. They were mostly back home on a July 4th recess they’d called.

C-SPAN cameras would be presumably allowed to cover any or all of the many July 4 parades in which those elected officials will partake as they celebrate democracy, liberty and, oh, yes, a free press. Then they’ll return to Washington and business as usual.

‘Twas ever thus.