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C-Spanning the room: Ups and downs of showing the real House

There’s tension in media access, and performative members

The battle over choosing a speaker last week took place before House rules were adopted, so C-SPAN was able to show more of the floor action of members huddling together. On Friday, the group opposing the choice of California Republican Kevin McCarthy included from left, Republican Reps. Matt Gaetz, Matt Rosendale, Lauren Boebert, Andy Biggs and Bob Good.
The battle over choosing a speaker last week took place before House rules were adopted, so C-SPAN was able to show more of the floor action of members huddling together. On Friday, the group opposing the choice of California Republican Kevin McCarthy included from left, Republican Reps. Matt Gaetz, Matt Rosendale, Lauren Boebert, Andy Biggs and Bob Good. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

I’m a hypocrite, or at least conflicted. Cameras in Congress are a good thing, I think. But they also might be part of the problem. 

For a handful of days, everyone had a taste of what could be. With no elected speaker of the House, the 118th Congress kicked off without any organizing rules, and the country had a front-row seat to history via C-SPAN’s cameras and news judgment. 

Instead of relying on wide shots of the House floor from fixed cameras on the dais controlled by the House Recording Studio, Americans were able to watch future lawmakers up close with additional cameras and without input from the people being covered. 

But, in one of his first actions, Speaker Kevin McCarthy has returned the chamber to the status quo, as C-SPAN (and the country) has been relegated to relying on the same static shots and angles that make it difficult to discern what members are actually doing.

For example, without the extra, independent cameras during the 15 votes for speaker, TV viewers would not have seen GOP Reps. Mike D. Rogers of Alabama and Matt Gaetz of Florida nearly come to blows. The general public wouldn’t have seen Gaetz and Paul Gosar of Arizona chatting with Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

As a lifelong journalist, I’m disappointed. My first instinct is to support more media access and shed more sunlight on lawmakers and the lawmaking process. It’s more interesting, and helps bring context and accountability.

At the same time, cameras are a contributor to the dysfunction and partisanship of Congress because they encourage performance. 

Unfortunately, cameras give a platform to lawmakers who don’t have any intention to do the work of making laws. If their end goal is to build a profile and make speeches, then cameras and the resulting media attention fuel that desire.

It’s hard for me to imagine Gaetz or Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert or the other 18 Republicans who opposed McCarthy’s election holding out for as long as they did if they hadn’t been in the spotlight all those days. That doesn’t mean they should have coronated McCarthy. But the setting and media attention provided an incentive to string out the process.

Do you think I’m unfairly judging the Never-Kevins? Guess who offered an amendment to the House rules to allow C-SPAN cameras back onto the House floor? 

Gaetz. 

“So, there are moments of bipartisanship and collegiality that occur every day. And the country doesn’t get to see those,” Gaetz told Fox News Digital

Pardon me if I don’t believe bipartisanship is a priority for the Florida congressman. It’s about building his brand and platform. Montana Rep. Matt Rosendale and others knew they had the country’s attention when casting vote after vote against McCarthy. The voice vote for speaker added to the drama — sticking your voting card in a slot and pressing a button isn’t as sexy, and it’s more difficult to generate outrage that way.

Of course, performance for the cameras can be bipartisan. California Democratic Rep. Katie Porter read a book with a provocative headline, “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F–k,” while sitting on the floor during one of the votes for speaker. It’s hard to believe the congresswoman, who recently announced her Senate campaign, would have done so without the cameras present.

That doesn’t mean anything any member does would be televised if there were more cameras. News entities would still have control over what gets covered, but members would still be distracted by the opportunity to get attention, rather than the work that needs to be done to come to an agreement. News entities would also have to show some restraint to avoid falling for political gimmicks and focus on the substance. 

Republicans’ need for media attention is a key reason why many of their complaints about the media are ridiculous. Former President Donald Trump needs the media he criticizes. He’s a creature of the media. Without television, Trump would not be a household name and would not have become president. 

If you don’t believe that cameras make a difference, just go a few steps from the Capitol, across Second Street Northeast, to the U.S. Supreme Court.

On one hand, the concept that the highest court in the country still does not have videotaped or televised proceedings in this century is preposterous. But it might also be keeping the cases from becoming a circus. It’s harder to make a splash in live streaming audio. 

The Supreme Court of course has legal ramifications for misconduct that don’t constrain members on the House floor, but the overall dynamic remains. 

If I had to make a binary decision, I’d take the additional C-SPAN cameras in Congress. But I don’t think the decision is as simple as it’s being made out to be. There are unintended consequences to more media access.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.

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