February 2, 2015

Rise Of The Camera-Aware Congress: C-SPAN’s Impact On Politics

By Brendan Sweeney

(Got a favorite C-SPAN moment? Let us know in the comments.)

Political junkies and curious news consumers have more tools than ever to follow the political process on the Hill, but nothing is as comprehensive as C-SPAN.

When the cable TV network launched on March 19, 1979, member of Congress knew that the new cameras would have a profound impact on “the People’s House.” Then-Rep. Al Gore (D-Tenn.), kicked off proceedings of the first televised coverage of the House of Representatives:

It took seven years for the U.S. Senate to follow the House’s lead. On June 2, 1986, Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) opened the first televised Senate session. He delivered some practical tips for giving a good impression before cameras:

Today, a mastery of stagecraft and theatrics is arguably a prerequisite for having a successful career as an elected official.

Since he arrived in Washington in 2013, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R) has brought colorful literary references to his routine filibusters, from Dr. Seuss to Henry V:

In March 2012, Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) memorialized Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Florida teen who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman. Rush wore a hoodie during his speech, violating House rules which prohibit the wearing of hats:

Some observers worry that the presence of cameras (and other real-time tools like Twitter) rewards flashy stunt-like behavior, while coarsening the rhetoric in public and behind closed doors.

Roll Call’s Christina Bellantoni says they also sometimes create misperceptions about how Congress works: For example, virtually every speech you watch on C-SPAN is delivered to a mostly empty chamber. But the camera offers no hint of who is (and isn’t) present.

Still, Bellantoni thinks C-SPAN is incredibly useful. It sheds light on the legislative process. And it can offer momentary glimpses, often unintentional, of the real people who represent us on the Hill. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) lost his re-election bid in 2006, in no small part because of his support for the Iraq War. When he returned to Washington after the election, he used his remaining floor time to eulogize constituents who had been killed in action during the war:

(Special thanks to Howard Mortman at C-SPAN.)