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Three decades ago this week, an important part of how American democracy is covered was forever changed. C-SPAN, known for its long-format and uneditorialized televising of U.S. federal government proceedings, launched the first of its spin-off networks, C-SPAN 2, which provides live coverage of the U.S. Senate, and reaches over 95 million U.S. homes. This might be taken for granted in today’s 24-hour live streaming news cycle, but it was very much a novelty to allow TV cameras onto the Senate floor back in 1986. Floor proceedings of the House of Representatives had started airing in 1979, but Senate proceedings were kept off air, mainly due to apprehensions that Senators would be too concerned about their own personas on television than with actual legislation.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell admitted to having been one of those naysayers, and even voted against televising the Senate, something he now says was a mistake on his part. “The American people are entitled to see our debates,” said McConnell. He further commented that he doesn’t think the cameras have changed the way the proceedings play out. In his opinion, the meetings are much more civil than presidential campaigns or Senate re-election campaigns. “They [the viewers] get to see that we don’t hate each other, that we have a collegial environment, that there are a lot of intelligent people here that are trying to do what they think is in the best interest of the country, and they’d be denied all that if not for C-SPAN covering the Senate.”
The value that the added transparency that the cameras brought to the Senate floor was not lost on many of the key Senate players of the time. Senator Majority Leader Bob Dole at the time even lamented how much America had lost due to the lack of television Senate coverage. No one could view the debates that were held throughout the first thirty years of television, including the battles over civil rights and the Vietnam War.
And thus, with the airing of the first Senate meetings began an era in which the public was granted the opportunity to witness key legislative moments and trials that have shaped our nation’s history. In a piece in the Washington Post, Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) both commented how the Senate impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton was an important incident that audiences needed to see–how the voting resulted and how the Senate handled the case as an obstruction of justice.
And while there have certainly been Senators that do use the cameras for self-promotion purposes, the core messaging of the debates on the Senate floor is what viewers walk away with. Voters are left to form their own opinions and perspectives for themselves.
Today’s social media debates and video clip sharing of the Senate sessions reach a lot more people, and encourage more involvement into the civic issues of our time, but perhaps one of the most valuable components of C-SPAN’s coverage is its video library that holds archives of every session since 1987—a historical record that will continue to serve and enlighten generations to come.
A more informed and engaged public is indeed what the Internet and television world strives for, and it’s achieved by networks like C-SPAN that remain true to their mission, which is to give the public uninterrupted coverage into all facets of the U.S. political process. The airing of the Senate proceedings is just one tool that helps viewers and future voters get a better glimpse of how our government works while keeping up with the technology and media consumption habits of our time. [The network covers so much content over large geographic regions in short periods of time, as we learned when our video crew captured how C-SPAN covered the New Hampshire Primary this past February.] As co-CEO Susan Swain told us earlier this year, technology continues to advance, “but the core product of C-SPAN, which is giving people a front row seat for national events, is really what it has been since the very beginning.”
And we pay tribute to that beginning.