Thursday, January 14, 2010

Thank You For C-SPAN (but...)

I was not aware that C-SPAN has, or is considered by some to have, a problem with bigoted callers on its call-in shows.  I know that they used to have a problem with Howard Stern callers...I have no idea if that's still a thing or not. 

I suppose, thinking about it, that I have heard callers saying bigoted things on C-SPAN.  Mostly, though, they just say things that are either ill-informed, or ape partisan talking points, or, most frequently, both.  Which leads me to wonder: what's the point?  Why does C-SPAN have call-in shows? 

C-SPAN performs an incredibly valuable service by broadcasting the House and the Senate, live and taped coverage of Congressional hearings, campaign events, and press conferences by various government figures.  None of those things, with rare exception, is available anywhere else on television.  C-SPAN supplements that with coverage of various conferences and events -- some academic, some not, again virtually all of them unavailable anywhere else on TV.  And then there's the weekend book stuff, also unavailable anywhere else on TV.  As much as I don't really believe in government openness as a principle, I'm all for the practice of it, and C-SPAN is absolutely wonderful.

Except, in my view, the call-in shows.  I've never understood the point of them, and they do seem to fill up large chunks of the day.  Unlike just about everything else C-SPAN does, yahoos calling up and reciting ill-informed partisan talking points is not something unavailable elsewhere; in fact, spin your radio dial any time of the day (or go to the comments sections of the big partisan blogs) and you'll get exactly that.  THat's especially true of the open caller (no guest) sections, but it's true as well when there are guests in the studio. 

C-SPAN is a funny animal.  As far as I know it's basically all up to (the great) Brian Lamb and perhaps whoever else runs things to do whatever they want, with I suppose the only real constraint that if they piss off one of the two major parties that they might put their funding in jeopardy.  There are no ratings to worry about, and no experienced, trained staff of editors pushing C-SPAN to conform to journalistic norms.  That's worked very well ( I just wish that Dish Network would finally add C-SPAN 3.  Oh, and the MLB Network, but I suppose that's off topic).  But...if I could tell C-SPAN what to do, I'd get rid of all call-ins.  It's not so much that call-in shows are a bad thing per se; it's just that they are commonplace, and as far as I can tell C-SPAN doesn't have any unique value added to the format.  Keep the guests, and just interview them; the rest of the time, there's always the next tier down of Congressional hearings and markups.


  1. C-SPAN doesn't receive any public funding. It's purely a service of the cable industry. I know; how shocking!

    I too dislike the Washington Journal call-ins and have stopped watching that broadcast regularly because they're maddening. At least they don't usualy have two dueling experts on anymore. They listen to comments.

    But the book call-ins and other special events, like the Presidents series, wouldn't exist as we know them without callers adding to the scripts/ non-scripts. They rely on callers to keep the ball rolling. That's very different from letting people vent on Washington Journal.

  2. Yup, the funding comes from the cable industry; my point above is that if C-SPAN became controversial (which would happen if one of the parties decided to demonize it), then the cable industry might yank its support.

    Fair point, though, that not all of the call-ins get partisan calls.

  3. Does anyone else think Book TV is leaning toward conservative politics nowadays? A couple of weekends ago they highlighted both Michele Malkin and Michael Medved, not to mention Sara Palin. The non-conservative writers are generally academic--history, sociology, economics, etc. The political stuff seems more and more right fringe. Are these the only political books out there? Well, there's "The Wrecking Crew," which I highly recommend. Has Thomas Frank been on? All this might explain the wingnut callers being given wholesale airtime. Unless CSPAN is engaging in "public service" by relieving the social pressure of these uninformed venters, it would seem cable providers are promoting revolution or at least do-nothing government.


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