On C-Span’s 40th Anniversary, a Top Executive Reflects on Its Political Impact

Forty years ago, C-Span went live with its first public broadcast from the House of Representatives chamber, giving Americans a television-shaped window into how lawmakers behave in the ornate room where history is often made.

Ushering in the C-Span era on March 19, 1979, was Al Gore, then a representative from Tennessee, who had pushed for the network’s access to the Capitol.

“From this day forward,” Mr. Gore said at the time, “every member of this body must ask himself or herself, how many Americans are listening to the debates which are made?”

Since that day, when C-Span debuted with four employees, the network has become a mainstay in American politics. We spoke with Susan Swain, one of C-Span’s two chief executives, about the birth of the network, Washington’s initial resistance to being caught on camera and how the network has adapted to the social media age.

This interview with Ms. Swain, who joined C-Span three years after it started, has been edited for brevity and clarity.

In the moment that Al Gore approached the lectern in the House chamber and C-Span went live, what changed in American politics?

The fact that people could actually see their elected representatives in their living room — and now on their phones — was a fundamental change. In the past, people might pull the lever every two years for their member of Congress and, if they were super engaged, might read a newsletter that came in the mail or go to an occasional town hall meeting.

This meant that any time you were interested, you could watch what your member of Congress had to say. Prior to television in Congress, the only time that members really got attention is if they had big names like Kennedy or if they did something outrageous, either positively or negatively, or if they were a member of the leadership.

Initially, there was a lot of resistance in Washington to the idea of C-Span broadcasting House floor debates. And the Senate didn’t allow C-Span in for another seven years. Why was there such resistance?

Members had concerns that the cameras would be swinging around and taking pictures of members while they were not focused attentively on the debates or — heaven forbid — closing their eyes for a second. Or today, perhaps they might be sending out a tweet.

One of the ways this finally came to bear was that they created a compromise that members could live with. The compromise was that the House of Representatives, the speaker’s office, would control the cameras that were on the floor of the House. All the rest of Congress, press conferences and hearings, it’s C-Span or other news organizations covering them independently.

Every time there’s a change of speaker we have sent a letter saying: ‘Now’s the time. Allow C-Span or other journalistic organizations to put our own cameras in side by side.’ That argument continues to go nowhere.

Were politicians self-conscious about how they’d appear on camera?

I think more so there was the concern that they wouldn’t be in control of the picture. The Senate finally acquiesced and it’s a classic story of American politics.

The House was coming into people’s living rooms via C-Span and then regularly on the nightly news because what we did could be picked up regularly for nightly stories about the House. Television loves pictures, so they would do more stories about the House. The Senate was becoming concerned that it was becoming the second-tier citizen of Congress.

The person who was really most instrumental is Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who had been one of the old-line members who was very much an institutionalist and very much concerned about how the Senate would change. He went home to West Virginia to speak and was introduced in West Virginia, his home state, as the speaker of the House. And it’s because he had a big shock of white hair, as did the then-Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. And this brought it all home to him. So he convinced some of the recalcitrant members, they did a vote and C-Span went on in June of 1986.

What is one of your most significant memories from your time at C-Span?

The day that the Challenger shuttle exploded we were televising it live, and I believe I was on the air as the shuttle was going up. And it became very clear as you watched that picture of the shuttle that this was a major catastrophe.

We sat and watched as long as NASA took pictures, and then the story began to unfold. Then we opened up our phone lines. There was just an incredible outpouring from around the country of people witnessing this absolute tragedy, human tragedy and also technological tragedy unfold in front of their eyes.

C-Span has given politicians a platform to connect directly with their constituents, but now they can do that on social media. Is C-Span still relevant?

C-Span’s relevance comes in the form of not only all of the events that we cover every day but within minutes after we televise them, they are digitized and stored on our video archives. It has 250,000 hours of political video that we’ve covered since 1987.

That means a member of Congress can pull a clip from their hearing and send it out to constituents. It also means that people on social media or late-night comedians have immediate access to this.

I think most people who are in their 20s or younger, if they have an experience with C-Span it is through social media, it is through the late-night comedians. The creation of our video library in 1987 was every bit as significant as the original creation of C-Span.

C-Span has long fought for cameras to be allowed in the Supreme Court chamber. What are the chances that you’ll succeed?

I feel a little bit like it’s Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill. What we have documented over the years is that when people are nominated to the Supreme Court they go into their committee hearings expressing their open mind to the concept, and then once they get inside that chamber of nine, they manage to be convinced by the others there that it would be detrimental to the institution.

We keep hoping that as the generations change and younger appointees come in who are very familiar with media and even social media, that the attitude will change. But the institution continues to prevail.


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