Despite the media's love affair with anniversaries, the 20th anniversary of the Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network, better known as C-SPAN, has come and gone with little notice. In the same time frame, two network morning shows celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Barbie doll.
Perhaps we shouldn't expect other television channels to celebrate C-SPAN, but they should. In an age when the network news panders to tabloid tastes (do we have a murdered six-year-old beauty queen for you!) and soccer-mom paranoia (learn how to keep your kids away from getting a high off the barbecue grill!), C-SPAN offers what the Big Three networks used to feel obligated to provide: unadorned, straightforward public-affairs programming.
The networks can now make excuses for bailing out of boring political coverage, what with C-SPAN, the Internet, talk radio, and 24-hour news channels. But does this mean that the 70 percent of the public that get most of its news from TV should be fed a fad diet of news lite? Is an historic impeachment trial worthy of only a few snippets from the Senate floor? Truth is, if you want real news on TV, you have to rely on C-SPAN.
A growing number of Americans, 22 million strong, now watch C-SPAN each week. Starting in 1979 with four employees and one phone line, C-SPAN has now become one of the most recognizable channels on cable TV, a channel that politically-minded Americans can't do without. Surveys show C-SPAN watchers are evenly divided among Democrats, Republicans and independents, and they're the nation's self-selected political elite: 93 percent of viewers said they voted in 1996.
C-SPAN not only impresses its audience, but also its primary programming subject, Congress. In a survey of Capitol Hill offices, 95 percent of staffers said C-SPAN's programming had no bias. Perfect objectivity is humanly impossible, but C-SPAN gets the formula as close to perfect as possible. C-SPAN chief Brian Lamb is objectivity personified, and the rest of the on-air staff strives to fit the mold. Phone lines on call-in shows are divided into liberals, conservatives, and moderates.
Lamb faces regular criticism that C-SPAN's interviews with politicians are too timid, and he is blunt in responding to that critique. "My reaction is, 'Did you understand that that question wasn't answered or whatever it is?' They say 'Sure. I watch C-SPAN. I understand the world. I'm, you know, a tough guy.' Then I remind them what they really want. Here's what they're worried about. They're worried about the guy down the street who they think is dumber than they are. They're constantly worried about the guy down the street. 'You've got to straighten it out for that bozo who lives down the street.' I don't feel the need for it, and I don't think you need it either."
In all of that air time devoted to politics, 17,000 hours a year to fill, should be be worried that C-SPAN would be manipulated by politicians? Lamb is blunt again: "I hope Republicans have exploited it and I hope Democrats have exploited it and I hope Perotistas have exploited it. What is it about us that we all think we should not argue? I think we should argue all the time. I think that's part of getting to a decision. Exploit the living daylights out of us." Everyone, from the Libertarians to the Socialist Workers Party, has shared camera time on C-SPAN. Unlike the networks, C-SPAN doesn't have to worry about ratings, and they don't follow an agenda to "enlighten" their audience with only the "correct" view of politics.
Sometimes political manipulators can win the day at C-SPAN. For example, C-SPAN's commitment to air live coverage from the House and Senate floors can lead to filibustering politicians trying to bury hearings they don't want aired in prime time. In 1997, when Fred Thompson's Senate Governmental Affairs Committee convened to investigate Democratic fundraising, the hearings were not aired during the day on C-SPAN, and thanks to well-timed Democratic speech-making, they were not aired at a suitable nighttime hour, either. But blame the Democrats, not C-SPAN, for that.
Many people mistakenly think that C-SPAN is a government-run or taxpayer-funded channel. (If only our taxpayer-funded news outlets had a fraction of C-SPAN's devotion to fairness and balance!) In fact, the totality of C-SPAN's budget - millions upon millions over 20 years, now estimated at more than $30 million annually - had been made possible by the cable industry, which remarkably, has been reluctant to toot its own horn over its terrific accomplishment.
So where are the tributes? Brian Lamb and his fellow journalists at C-SPAN should take a bow. Their sponsors in the cable industry deserve applause. The networks should take a lesson.