Jewish World Review March 22, 2004 / 29 Adar, 5764
Thank goodness for C-SPAN
Whenever I turn on C-Span these days, the most interesting comment is the one that always gets ignored.
Callers will vent about how America is being taken over by corporations, how Rupert Murdoch is poisoning the airwaves with the sound of Sean Hannity's voice, and how tobacco companies want to get puppies addicted to nicotine-rich chew toys, but they almost always preface their comments by saying something to the effect of, "G-d bless C-Span!"
What I've always found so amusing is that the people who are convinced that America's corporate powerhouses are enemies of democracy and goodness see no irony in the fact that C-Span is paid for entirely out of the goodness of the hearts of America's greedy Big Media companies.
Particularly during the brouhaha over media consolidation, with constant harangues from C-Span callers over the stranglehold Big Media had over American democracy, you'd still hear them say how C-Span is the "best" and, often, the "only honest news source in America."
Of course, the mouth breathers are right. Oh, no, I don't think C-Span is the only honest news source in America: there's also this column, the Racing Form, my snitch at the shoe-shine stand and plenty of others. But in many respects, C-Span is simply the best thing American media, broadly defined, has going for it. And that's worth recognizing on its 25th anniversary on the air this month.
When I watched C-Span in college, my friends used to mock me by calling it DTV - "dull TV." And it's true that C-Span can be mind-numbingly dull. But what's dull in reality is often exciting in principle.
Many Americans, on the left and the right, are fond of claiming that citizens today are locked out of democracy for one reason or another: the vice-grip of corporations or special interests or incumbency. All of those are worthy arguments to one degree or another.
But in at least one monumental respect they're wrong. C-Span gives American citizens access to goings-on in the capital undreamed of in many countries and by preceding generations of Americans.
I'm not just talking about VIP access to congressional hearings - something only the anointed press corps and a select few others ever got to see without a thick media filter. C-Span covers speeches, conferences, rallies and the like, without commercial interruption and with very few frills.
If one were to go only by the descriptions offered by the likes of Maureen Dowd, you'd expect a notorious "neocon" think tank like the American Enterprise Institute to be full of Roman centurions drinking wine out of goblets, sloshing it over their war maps. When in reality, the place is full of fairly nerdy policy geeks having very serious arguments about very serious things. Seeing that is healthy for everybody.
It's amazing how many stories were actually "broken" by C-Span without C-Span even trying. For example, remember the recent implosion of Sen. Trent Lott's leadership of the Senate GOP when he bizarrely declared he wished Strom Thurmond had won the presidency on his segregationist platform? The elite media mostly missed or downplayed the story. They only caught up after a political backlash swelled up from those who'd seen it on TV.
For good and for ill, it's doubtlessly true that C-Span "reports" lots of stories that would otherwise have been bleached by elite media.
That's partly why I cannot think of a single institution - not schools, courts, churches, sports teams, PBS- that is more universally admired on all sides of the political spectrum.
But for me, C-Span's greatest accomplishment is the message it sends about how improvements in our democracy get made. Sure, grassroots groups do good things (and bad). Sure, government reformers can do good things (and bad). But the most radical positive transformation in a generation, in terms of how informed citizens understand their government, came about because a quiet former Hill staffer and correspondent named Brian Lamb wanted to do something good and decent for his country.
And through the power of his idea, he convinced those supposedly greedy fat cats to launch C-Span, and he convinced those supposedly elitist and cynical politicians to cooperate with it. One guy accomplished so much because he worked on the assumption that the "powers that be" wanted to be good Americans and good citizens, too. The guy deserves a medal.
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