Politicos had the week of their lives as the House of Representatives slogged through a 15-ballot process to determine a Speaker, an epic-sized drama with a cast of characters and plot twists that famed author Allen Drury (Advise and Consent series) would have had a hard time creating. It was an adrenaline rush, that once concluded very late Friday night, allowing for the nation of television watchers and social media followers to lean back deep in their sofas and truly exclaim “Wow!”
There was no way for even casual viewers or the most lackadaisical of citizens not to have been aware history was being made. The nation soon was talking about the fact it had been nearly a century that a Speaker election at the Capitol required more than a single ballot. Tension mounted so that reporters spoke openly and even somewhat thrillingly that no one knew how the events would play out. This was after all, why they wished to join the journalism profession. Soon those in the land who thought they were not interested in history started talking about Nathaniel Prentice Banks, who in 1855 required 133 ballots over two months to secure the gavel. It was that type of week.
As the politics were playing out with spirited nominating speeches on the chaotic House floor, while the ratings for all news channels increased, Americans realized something truly quite fascinating was occurring in front of their eyes. Gone were the stale and formalized offerings from the C-SPAN cameras that only allowed for the House member speaking to be viewed, or the chair of the Speaker to be focused upon. Rather there was a freewheeling display for the citizens to watch, as the cameras caught every angle of the story and made sure the main players and the supporting roles in the drama had plenty of air-time. On the first day, there was lonely George Santos, who got a break in his highly troubling running narrative due to a much larger headline overshadowing him. There were animated discussions where Matt Gaetz was the focal point for viewers. Friday night there was nearly a brawl that was captured by the cameras. Though this was not legislative sausage being made, the nation was better understanding what was happening so as to elect the main meat grinder.
Needless to say, there are news stories to be seen and told regarding the working coalitions of House members via the interactions on the floor. Accounts that can only be presented fully to the nation if House cameras are allowed to record such moments. But all that was lost again once the House passed its rules and again abides by the most outdated and self-protecting rules in Washington. (Other than at the Supreme Court.)
Brain Stelter, former anchor of CNN’s Reliable Sources is a fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. He made a very compelling argument for the cameras to operate in an open and transparent fashion in a must-read column in the Boston Globe.
But consider what the public is usually unable to see: The joint session of Congress on Jan. 6, 2021, was not deemed deserving of independent TV coverage. So when the proceedings were adjourned due to the mob at the doors, the cameras were immediately turned off. Viewers should have been able to see the attack as it happened on the House floor — and the imagery would have made it harder for hard-right media personalities to deny the reality of that day.
But the desire to treat the House as a private workspace is superseded by the very public nature of the job. As a compromise of sorts, congressional leaders should allow a pool of journalists’ cameras for major news events and legislative debates — and the news media should determine what counts as major, not the government.
Sound journalism demands that the cameras operate for the benefit of the public’s right to know and better understand how their government functions. Or fails. There really is no better or more sound argument to be made. What politicos and everyone else were able to see and react to, be it with a partisan tinge, a historic perspective, or just from a ‘can not take my eyes off the crash scene’ mentality’ is that having more information is always a better route to take.
The fortunate lack of rules at the start of the year in the House allowed the cameras to give our nation insight into how a legislative body actually looks, feels, and reacts to the minute-by-minute tumult. It may not be pretty, but it is our government ‘working’. It is, for better or worse, democracy on full parade.