C-SPAN’s Unblinking Eye

Good morning, it’s Tuesday, March 19, 2019. On this date 40 years ago, future vice president Albert Gore Jr. stood in the well of the House of Representatives to discuss an innovative development in television programming. There was nothing remarkable about that in itself: At the time, Gore was a Tennessee congressman with a knack for getting himself on TV and someone who possessed genuine interest in new technology and mass communication.

Yet on this day, there was something momentous about Gore’s speech on the House floor. It was the first ever to be televised from that hallowed place, courtesy of a new venture called C-SPAN. Addressing an audience that C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb later joked “was in the dozens,” Gore said, “The marriage of this medium and of our open debate have the potential, Mr. Speaker, to revitalize representative democracy.”

He wasn’t wrong about that, and exactly four decades later, C-SPAN is still going strong.

From the opening seconds of what would become C-SPAN’s uninterrupted odyssey of gavel-to-gavel coverage of the United States Congress, even a casual viewer could see that this was something different. Not low-budget production values, exactly, because there was nothing cheap about the network’s lighting or cameras. It was more properly understood to be low-hype values, the opposite of commercial television.

C-SPAN’s sensibilities, which have changed very little, can be gleaned from viewing the first four minutes of its live broadcasting. It shows the entry door to the chamber, the chaplain opening the March 19, 1979 session with prayer, and House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. recognizing Al Gore — a young, thin, handsome Al Gore.

There were various reasons for the no-frills C-SPAN approach, one of them being necessity: The network only had four employees when it first went on the air, far too few to get fancy. More to the point was Brian Lamb’s promise to O’Neill to approach this endeavor with gravity. Lamb had no desire to compete in a glitzy way with the networks anyway. It was the cable industry after all, and not the government, that was paying for the thing — and still does.

Finally, there was Lamb’s own seriousness of purpose, which has never wavered. It wasn’t supposed to be sexy, in other words; it was supposed to be informative. Over the years on C-SPAN, Americans have watched debates about going to war and seen many changes in House leadership, including the installation of the first female speaker. They watched in 2001 as the self-same Al Gore presided as the Electoral College votes were counted — the votes that would put his rival, George W. Bush, in the White House instead of him.

By then, Americans had watched the House debate and subsequently vote to impeach Al Gore’s boss, as well as the debate and 1999 Senate vote acquitting Bill Clinton. Who knows? Soon we may be watching another presidential impeachment spectacle. If that happens, one thing you can count on is that C-SPAN will be there. It won’t be alone, of course, except in one important way: It is the one news organization that will cover it straight, “without fear or favor,” in the old newspaper phrase — or without snark or attitude, to use a more modern parlance.

“Forty years ago C-SPAN first put the U.S. House of Representatives on television, opening a window for viewers to get an unfiltered view of government,” notes C-SPAN communications director Howard Mortman. “While Washington may have changed, we haven’t — our unblinking eye on Congress and public debate continues. The window is still open, giving the world a front-row seat to democracy.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)
ccannon@realclearpolitics.com

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