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How C-SPAN Made Congress and Washington Worse

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Brian Lamb, who launched the channel and is now its executive chairman, rejects this idea. “When I first came to the town in 1966, I’d go up at night and sit up there and listen,” he told the Post recently. Members of Congress “performed on the floor of the House just like they do now.”

But C-SPAN can’t have its 40th-birthday cake and eat it, too. Either the channel was a revolution in the way Washington worked, in which case something has changed, or it wasn’t. Just take Gingrich, who arrived in Washington as a U.S. representative from Georgia the same year that C-SPAN debuted. As Frontline explained, he quickly grasped the power of the new outlet:

The House, which limits the length of debate over legislation, has a rule allowing so-called special orders—permission to give lengthy speeches at the end of each legislative day. These have long been a means by which congressmen could read into the Congressional Record various matters of importance to their constituents, usually matters of trivia. But Gingrich, concerned less with the Record than with the potential television audience, began to use special orders regularly as his platform for advancing ideas and, especially, for attacking the Democratic majority.

Often that meant that Gingrich and his rabble-rousing, rebellious allies were giving speeches to an empty House chamber. Once, in 1984, Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, annoyed at Gingrich, had cameras pan to show that no one was listening to some stem-winder. (Gingrich himself would make camera pans a policy when, years later, he became speaker.) But O’Neill also lost his temper at Gingrich and snapped at him. His intemperate remarks were stricken from the record, the first time that had happened since 1798, and Gingrich’s prominence soared as a result. It didn’t matter that the House chamber was empty: Gingrich was able to get attention from the live coverage, or else from the blowups that he precipitated while speaking on the floor. The number of eyeballs on Gingrich at a given time didn’t necessarily matter, either. His behavior, like that of the politicians who would follow him, was affected by the mere potential for eyeballs.

That strategy might sound familiar after three years of watching Donald Trump—both the ability to speak to the public live on camera, without mediation, and also the knack for creating and exploiting crises. As my colleague McKay Coppins wrote last year, Gingrich pioneered Trump-style politics, though the current president’s rise depended even more on the new technologies of cable news and the internet—which was (not actually) invented by Al Gore, who was coincidentally the first speaker on C-SPAN in 1979, when he was a representative from Tennessee.

The aim to speak without any editorial intervention and create a ruckus is hardly the exclusive preserve of Gingrich or the president. Politicians from both parties have recognized Gingrich’s genius and embraced his technique. Using C-SPAN, Gingrich sought to sidestep what he viewed as liberal bias in the mainstream media, but circumventing the press’s mediation means that politicians can also offer complete hogwash directly to the public without anyone stopping falsehoods.

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