Americans were captivated Wednesday night by the drama on the floor of the House of Representatives, where Democratic lawmakers staged a sit-in to try to force a vote on two proposed gun control bills. It was pretty wild stuff. It may be as close as real-life politics will ever get to an episode of "The West Wing."
It also showed millions of Americans how lucky we are to have C-SPAN.
Everyone kinda knows what C-SPAN is. For most of us who grew up in a time when people still sat in front of the TV and just flicked through the channels to see what was on, C-SPAN was the group of channels you frantically clicked right through. It was usually some old dude in a suit talking to an empty House chamber, presented with laughably dated graphics.
It is also the single most common target of jokes at the White House Correspondents Dinner.
Here’s Conan O’Brien from 2013: “Right here at the start, I am going to share something with you people, and it does not leave this room. I say this with absolute confidence, because we are on C-SPAN.”
Joel McHale, 2014: “Tonight’s show is being broadcast on C-SPAN. C-SPAN is like one of those 'Paranormal Activity' movies. It’s just grainy shots of empty rooms interrupted by images of people you’re pretty sure died a few years ago. Yeah. Oh, and stay tuned after the Correspondents Dinner for an all-new episode of C-SPAN’s hit show, 'So You Think You Can Remain Conscious.' It’s very competitive.”
Cecily Strong, last year: “Tonight's event is being broadcast on C-SPAN. To viewers watching at home, hello. To most viewers watching at home on C-SPAN, meow. If you don't know how to find C-SPAN, you just press the Guide button on your remote and hit Page Up until your thumb cramps up."
Larry Wilmore, this year: “C-SPAN, of course, is carrying tonight’s dinner live, which is ironic because most of their viewers aren’t. It’s true, guys. C-SPAN is the No. 1 network among people who died watching TV and no one’s found them yet. … No, but it is good to be on C-SPAN. Glad I’m not on your rival network, 'No input, HDMI-1.'”
But on Wednesday, at least for one night, people appreciated C-SPAN. The height of the drama occurred when Republican lawmakers ordered the C-SPAN House cameras turned off. Democratic lawmakers began to broadcast the sit-in on their individual Periscope feeds—and, heroically, C-SPAN carried it live. Riveting stuff. The clip of Texas Republican Louie Gohmert yelling “Radical Islam killed these people!” will probably go down in history.
C-SPAN itself is a small miracle. Most people assume it’s a government-owned service forced by law onto your TV Screen. That’s not the case. C-SPAN is not funded by the government, nor does it receive corporate underwriting, the way NPR and PBS do. It is a nonprofit funded entirely by cable subscriber fees.
Basically, C-SPAN exists because the Comcasts, Time Warner Cables, and DirecTVs of the world let it exist out of the goodness of their hearts.
And that’s the miracle: Private corporations don’t do anything out of the goodness of their hearts. Certainly nothing that enhances democracy the way C-SPAN does.
That they do this is a testament to the vision of one man: Brian Lamb. C-SPAN was his idea. As a cable executive in the 1970s, he had the idea for a network that would broadcast the day-to-day workings of government. He convinced the cable channels to carry it (and pay for it), and he led the lobbying effort to allow cameras on the floor of the House and Senate.
It sounds like a simple idea, but it was quite radical at the time. And powerful people don’t like to be subjected to such high levels of transparency. There's a quote from the conservative scholar Samuel P. Huntington: “Power remains strong when it remains in the dark; exposed to the sunlight it begins to evaporate.”
The lack of transparency is a huge problem in Europe. Over there, nobody knows who the hell runs things. The bureaucrats in Brussels are wholly unknown to the public at large. They meet behind closed doors and make decisions on the affairs of the continent.
It’s so bad that a former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, is leading an effort to livestream the deliberations of the eurozone. In essence, he wants a Euro C-SPAN: “Transparency is everything. It’s the first step. It’s a huge, revolutionary step that takes nothing more than the press of a button."
And without C-SPAN, we wouldn’t have #viral moments such as Elizabeth Warren Embarrassing Bank Regulators. Or Al Franken’s Epic Takedown of this Anti-Gay Witness.
But, wait, there’s more! C-SPAN doesn’t just offer you an unfiltered view into Education Secretary John King’s testimony before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act. It also offers lengthy interviews with prominent authors and intellectuals.
At a time when cable news mostly gives us mind-numbing two-minute segments in which two hacky “political strategists” yell rehearsed talking points at each other before the anchor decides to “leave it there,” C-SPAN's vast archive of public affairs discussions will provide an invaluable resource to historians and, really, anyone interested in seeing how things were at any point in our recent past.
Corporate media is basically one giant conflict of interest. The profit motive presents all kinds of problems for news outlets, and it’s only getting worse. C-SPAN gives people an unfiltered, untainted view inside some of our most powerful institutions.
You can snark at it all you want, but you’ll miss it when it’s gone.
Nando Vila is Vice President of Programming at Fusion and a correspondent for America with Jorge Ramos.