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C-SPAN: Cheers!

This month marks the 25th anniversary of C-SPAN’s first broadcast from the House, and we’re delighted to help celebrate one of the best things ever to happen to Congress — it’s becoming truly available to the whole of the American people. Thanks to C-SPAN, citizens can now watch at least one branch of the federal government as it does its public business. They can hear the arguments and see the players — and C-SPAN gives them ample opportunity to call in with unedited judgments. It’s a grand gift to democracy.

It’s amazing to us that there ever was a controversy about “letting cameras in” to Congress. But there certainly was. It took seven years from the first House broadcast on March 19, 1979, for the Senate to open itself up. But C-SPAN offered the legislative branch the opportunity to catch up to the executive, where presidents had made ample use of the medium of television for more than 20 years to communicate their message to the country. We’re glad to note that C-SPAN has had its effect on the executive, too, with the White House now allowing TV coverage of the daily press briefing.

One day, we hope sooner rather than later, the Supreme Court will follow the other branches in letting the public watch its public proceedings. We submit, television’s experience with the House and Senate shows that the justices have nothing to fear from cameras. Congress is inherently a far more raucous body than the court, and if anything, C-SPAN has improved the decorum of Members, not diminished it.

Some commentators claim that C-SPAN has contributed to increasing public cynicism about politics and helped lower voter turnout. You might think so, listening to some of the wild conspiratorialism that comes through from C-SPAN callers. But polls show that what might be called the “Great Disillusionment” occurred between 1958 and 1980, when trust in government fell from 73 percent to 25 percent. It’s true, trust hasn’t recovered much in the C-SPAN era — it’s now at 40 percent — but the medium is not at fault. It’s the message, especially the placing of partisan advantage over the public interest.

If a great institution exists, it’s because someone great created it. And there’s no question who deserves the credit in this case: Brian Lamb, who convinced a dubious cable industry that people really would watch government in action. He started with a staff of four and broadcast to 3.5 million homes. Twenty-five years later, C-SPAN has 275 employees, three channels, a radio station and 10 Web sites — and reaches 88 million homes. As an interviewer and a manager, Lamb has set a standard for objectivity, fairness, self-effacement and good manners that every news professional can only admire. It’s a grand achievement and we’re proud to have been C-SPAN boosters from the beginning.

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