Covering a Presidential Primary: Interview with C-SPAN Co-President and Co-CEO Susan Swain


In an era in which apps, social media and TV Everywhere have given us instant access to political events that we didn’t have before, how the media covers presidential candidates in the primaries has never been more important. With talking heads and pundits galore, a voter’s opinion can easily be swayed with a mere comment, camera angle, or video editing technique.

That’s why a network like C-SPAN, which abstains from commentary, is all the more fascinating, as we explained on Friday. As we continue our bus trip today with the network around New Hampshire on the eve of the primary, we’d like to share selected comments from our conversation with C-SPAN Co-President and Co-CEO, Susan Swain. See snippets from our Q&A session below as Susan divulges the challenges and rewards that come with covering events in full during election season, and explains why America’s voters still need this type of coverage in the 21st century.

In what ways has C-SPAN evolved from how it covered presidential politics since the network’s start in 1979?

Susan: We began covering presidential politics in earnest in 1984. We were in New Hampshire and Iowa for those first two events way back then, so this is our ninth election. In some respects, what we do is very much the same as it was in 1984. We go to events on behalf of the public and let them see presidential candidates in their entirety. But at the same time so much is different because we’ve got this robust digital presence. A lot of our vets go on social media and then we’ve got everything archived for everyone to watch on their own schedule on our video library. So 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. We stay true to that mission.

How is C-SPAN approaching the New Hampshire primary? Anything different than last time?

Susan: We have 40 people in New Hampshire. We are set up in Radisson which is the center of the political universe. That hasn’t changed. But when we go out to events, our folks are using small cameras to capture the scene behind the scene, we’re using Snapchat when we are on location. And where we might have been doing one or two tasks in the past, now everyone in this business has to do three or four at the same time. [For example] I will be doing interviews with the public but also taking photos and short videos and putting them on Twitter, Snapchat. You have to be constantly on your game. That has changed even from four years ago.

What are the challenges you face as a network by having to balance ideologies and reflect a wide variety of viewpoints?

Susan: In regards to the presidential candidates, when you’ve got  12 right before the Iowa caucus, all along the way our editorial group is aware that we have to give these second and third tier candidates in the polls their access to the public. So you are mindful in your editorial decisions to go where the frontrunners are in greater proportion than with the people who are trailing the pack. We weren’t with Jim Gilmore the same amount of time we were with Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, that wouldn’t be the best use of resources. But we do make sure those people get time in front of the public over the course of our coverage. It’s not just about the Democrats and Republicans. There are more people who are political independents in this country than there are registered for either party.  We make a point as the year progresses to cover green party candidates and the libertarians when they hold their conventions. Everyone in the political system gets a voice and we think that’s fundamental to what we do.

What role does the C-SPAN bus play and what does it hope to accomplish on the ground in New Hampshire?

Susan: The C-SPAN Bus has been a great part of our coverage since 1992 in various iterations. And it’s been on the campaign trail almost as long as the candidates have been.

We did our first campaign event for the 2016 event cycle in May, 2013. Five months after we swore in Barrack Obama for a second term, candidates were already on the campaign trail in Iowa and New Hampshire.

It’s a billboard on wheels. In addition to that it’s a rolling classroom and a digital display. We bring people on board and introduce them to our content but we also let them get on our computers and connect with the Internet, use our website. There are cameras in there because we use it as a rolling studio as well. People can sit where the candidates have been for interviews and take selfies. It connects people in a really approachable way to C-SPAN programming and helps us teach them why we are different on purpose. We know we are a niche programmer.  The people who are really interested in politics are the people who are likely to watch C-SPAN, and in an election year the people who pull up to these events, those are our people. It’s great to use the bus as a hands- on approach to connect with people.

Anything else you’d like to add about this important event in New Hampshire?

Susan: These two events in Iowa and New Hampshire are so important because it’s the winnowing process. New Hampshire will be the next step. People will be making very important decisions about continuing their campaign or not. So the coverage now, it’s not just people around the country who are watching, but people in the state who can’t get out to the events. They will be watching too before they go to the polls.

We hope we can do our part to make sure people are informed before they go to vote on Tuesday.

Check back later this week for more coverage on our experience following C-SPAN during the New Hampshire primary.

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