Thursday, March 19, 2009

This Day in Television History (C-Span Begins)

March 19, 1979—In a post-Watergate measure designed to ensure greater accountability and transparency, the House of Representatives went on television, as public TV and cable’s C-Span network began regular live coverage of congressional floor proceedings.

The hope for the new medium was expressed by the first representative to speak before the cameras, Al Gore Jr. The Democrat from Tennessee observed: “It is a solution for the lack of confidence in government. The marriage of this medium and of our open debate have the potential, Mr. Speaker, to revitalize representative democracy.”

It’s good that the future Vice-President used a rather than the before “solution,” because at this point, “lack of confidence in government” is perhaps more rife now than it was after the seamy revelations of Vietnam and Watergate. The solution to the lack of confidence, I’d say, is competent people who govern honestly. But there’s the rub!

Gore’s statement, however, does raise a question: Has C-Span changed the way Washington does business?

In a certain way, yes. Approximately 97 million cable/satellite households have access to C-Spa’s public affairs programming, and the notion that 39 million American watch it at least once a week should put a chill down the spine of corrupt lawmakers.

Only, as we’ve come to know well over the years, it hasn’t. A certain breed of politicians (cynics would say all of them) would try to steal a hot stove if they could.

C-Span has at least provided the following:

* Opportunities for politicians to check each other. Newt Gingrich took advantage of House rules that allowed members to make after-hours speeches when only C-Span cameras were around, repeatedly charging the Democratic leadership with corruption. House Speaker Tip O’Neill, who’d pushed for the live programming to begin with, finally got disgusted with Gingrich's bombast and ordered the cameras to pan all around the room to show the empty chamber.

* Nonpartisan coverage of politics. Conservatives gravitate toward Fox News and liberals toward MSNBC. The other various broadcast and cable networks, along with blogs and talk radio, have become increasingly partisan as well. C-Span is the one institution that airs House and Senate proceedings in full, and, whether you’re a devotee of Noam Chomsky or the American Enterprise Institute, you can hear them in full, unadulterated, in speeches that the 24-hour network broadcasts.

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