The Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network, better known as C-SPAN, is certainly an easy target for ridicule. The straight-ahead, no frills network is regularly satirized on Saturday Night Live and by everyone from Seth Meyers to John Oliver.
But in an increasingly polarized media climate dominated by pundits and screamers, could this neutral and civilized network have new relevance?
Journalist Brian Lamb launched C-SPAN in 1979 as a non-profit media outlet designed to give TV audiences a front row seat to governance.
Today C-SPAN, has grown to three cable channels and a radio station, and also reaches audiences via Facebook Live and Periscope. Last June, C-SPAN’s video feed showed the nearly 15 hour-long filibuster by Senate Democrats on gun control. During the presidential transition, C-SPAN set up a camera in the lobby of Trump Tower to watch Cabinet candidates taking the elevator to meet with Donald Trump. And of course, last night C-SPAN covered the president’s joint address to Congress.
Steven Scully is C-SPAN’s political editor and the host of its call-in show, “Washington Journal.” He’s been with the network since 1990. We reached him in his Washington D.C. office today.
On C-SPAN's coverage of the House Democrat filibuster over gun legislation in June, 2016:
It was really because of Periscope and social media that allowed us to show what was happening and listen to what was happening on the House floor. In the course of the history of this network there have been a couple of moments that really defined who we are and what we do. That was one of them. Another was in the 1980s when Newt Gingrich was then a backbencher and was going after Tip O'Neill, and the then-Speaker of the House called it the lowest thing [Gingrich had] ever done. O'Neill demanded that the cameras show that House Republicans — then in the minority — were speaking to an empty chamber, even though people seeing it at home might have thought they were speaking to fellow Democrats in the House of Representatives. That thrust us onto the national stage and people began to pay attention to what we're all about.
When [the filibuster] happened last June, again, it was very organic. It wasn't anything we had planned, but we felt it was important because the House technically was not in session. But House Democrats were on the floor speaking and we wanted to show what was happening. So when they write the history of this network's defining moments, that certainly was one of them.
On the failed 1984 proposal to have cameras pan the House of Representatives chamber:
That's been an ongoing issue. The reason why C-SPAN is the House and the Senate is on C-SPAN2 is because the Senate did not agree to television cameras until 1986. They were slow at the starting gate for a number of reasons. Then they realized that they'd go back to their states and constituents would know House members from being on TV and didn't know their senator. So that really lead to the sea change in the Senate.
One of the stipulations was that the House would control the cameras. One thing you learn about Washington — if nothing else — is this is a town about control. In this case, the House Democrats did not want to have outsiders show what was happening if there were people whispering in the back of the room. They wanted the focus just to be on the House floor.
We constantly ask to have our own cameras in the chamber. What you saw during the joint session of Congress by President Trump was network pool cameras and the ability for us to show what was happening. That's the exception, not the rule. We would much rather — and we're willing to have our cameras in there all the time — give context to what's happening on the House floor. Again, it's the issue of control. Since 1979, that's been a non-starter for speakers of the House — both Democrats and Republicans.
On John Oliver's segment calling him "the most patient man in television":
I've been here for a number of years and my kids finally think I'm cool now that John Oliver is making fun of me and C-SPAN.
We are really a reflection of the American people. I grew up in a family with 12 brothers and sisters. So I have Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow in my family. So at Thanksgiving and at Christmas, you can imagine what the dinner conversation is like. I kind of apply that when I listen to the callers. We're a town hall forum and this is what America is thinking.
It's not about me. It's not a forum for me to talk about the issues. I'll tell you one thing: In the 2016 campaign, if you listened to C-SPAN, you knew there was something going on out there. You knew that Democrats had tepid support for Hillary Clinton and you knew that Republicans were lock, stock and barrel with Donald Trump, especially with these key states like Michigan and Pennsylvania. Based on what the callers were telling us, you had a sense that there's something more out there that the pollsters were not capturing. And that's the beauty of what we do.
On the Trump administration's recent meeting with news outlets:
Yesterday the President had a luncheon with network anchors. And to the White House's credit, they expanded that list to include the Catholic Channel, OAN TV and Univision. And I was included in the luncheon yesterday as well. I literally sat next to the President in the state dining room. He was very expansive and he talked a lot about issues. It was interesting because it was a different Donald Trump. We saw in the speech before the joint session of Congress that he seemed to be more presidential. We saw that earlier in the day as well. He listened, he gave very expansive answers, he took questions from everyone, he did talk about fake news and basically said, I just want you guys to treat me fairly. He also said, There are some networks that I will not watch. But he turned to me and he said, We love you guys. We love what you do because you put it out there and people can see and make their own decisions.
On C-SPAN acting as an unfiltered, unbiased outlet:
People have compared C-SPAN to the Switzerland of the media, which I think is an interesting perspective. We're doing the same thing today that we did in 1979, which is, let's let the pictures tell the story. We're doing a lot better in terms of delivering the product. But the mission is the same. I tell students, You only have one thing in life and that's your reputation. I think — knock on wood — C-SPAN has a sterling reputation because we treat everyone fairly and present it in a way that doesn't show an agenda. Our camera angles, our directing, our producing — all straight above-board for everyone and every organization and every entity.
On C-SPAN's continuing mission:
Today, you have a lot of choices for news and information. Our goal is simply to be one of those choices. The one thing that we can do that's different is to have long-form programming, unedited, uninterrupted live coverage of major events, hearings and speeches so you come to our website, listen on radio, watch on television and get a sense of what's happening and not let news organizations, news editors or pundits make the decisions for you.