C-SPAN’s Up-Close Coverage of House Speaker Chaos Shows How More Access Can ‘Humanize’ Politics

The government-run feed normally doesn’t capture the reactions, squabbles and off-podium drama we get when network cameras are in the House

Kevin McCarthy shared a tense confrontation with Rep. Matt Gaetz during the House speaker election (C-SPAN)

The House’s struggle through 15 rounds of voting to elect Kevin McCarthy, the longest Speaker contest in over 164 years, gave C-SPAN unprecedented access to the House chamber, where its cameras caught everything from the California congressman’s tense confrontation with Rep. Matt Gaetz to Democratic Rep. Katie Porter reading “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F-ck.”

That level of human drama, not normally caught on government-controlled cameras that make up most of C-SPAN’s feed, could engage audiences and “humanize” politics if the network’s request for full-time House access is granted, media experts agree.

“If we had that kind of coverage of Congress all the time, people would watch more [and] it would be more honest,” Claire Potter, professor of history at The New School for Social Research, told TheWrap. “What we’re currently getting from C-SPAN, and all of the ways in which C-SPAN footage is used by the the networks, is a highly edited and highly sanitized version of democracy, and it’s really good for people to see democracy as messy.”

In accordance with House rules — which indicate that policies surrounding outside media are dictated by the speaker — C-SPAN’s unlimited access was ended Monday as the House debated a new rules package, the network confirmed. The nonprofit public service channel resumed using the feed from the government-operated cameras, which provides the typical bird’s-eye view or tight shots of single speakers that are used across news networks.

“The government operating office that produces the feed is only allowed to show the person who was speaking and wide shots,” C-SPAN director of editorial operations Ben O’Connell told TheWrap. “They are not allowed to show reaction shots, they’re not allowed to show people who weren’t at the microphones speaking with one another … they’re not allowed to show the scrums of legislators wandering the floor trying to persuade their their colleagues one way or the other.”

The House speaker election is one of the rare occasions when the House allows outside cameras and media into to its chambers, along with State of the Union Addresses, ceremonial joint sessions of Congress and other special events, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s recent speech to Congress. While C-SPAN has traditionally been permitted access to the speaker election every two years, the House might rotate which independent media outlet has access to the chambers during events.

While Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speculated the policy might aim to protect politicians from attack ads on a recent Instagram live post, it is unclear exactly why the restricted access policy has historically continued under both Democratic and Republican speakers. “We have asked for decades and have been denied [by] speakers of both parties,” O’Connell said. “They may all have the same reason or they may all have different reasons.”

Regardless of the reasoning, O’Connell told TheWrap that C-SPAN “would love to have greater access for our cameras in the chamber.” “If there’s a major piece of legislation on the floor that everyone’s talking about, we’d love to be able to show that with our own cameras,” O’Connell said.

In C-SPAN’s request for ongoing access to cover House floor proceedings sent to speaker Kevin McCarthy in a letter Tuesday, the organization proposed that C-SPAN would install a “few additional cameras” in the House chamber that would be mixed with the existing House production to create “a second, journalistic product” without altering the existing audio system provided by the House.  

As political commentary soared as news networks and Twitter conversations interpreted the near-brawl between McCarthy and Gaetz — including a New York Times opinion piece investigating historical political violence by Joanne B. Freeman — and Marjorie Taylor Green’s phone call with former President Donald Trump on the House floor, C-SPAN’s intimate coverage of the election was essential in faciliating this analysis, president of Media Matters Angelo Carusone told TheWrap.

“The narrative that was clearly reflective of reality about how much chaos and discord existed during that process would have been a lot harder for the news media to demonstrate,” Carusone told TheWrap. “If it was the standard rules … the cameras would have been allowed to cover … the nominating speeches, and then they would have been able to pan out and just cover the podium, as the voting was taking place … You needed the visuals happening in the B-roll to sustain the broader discussion about what was really happening on the floor.”

Not only that, but the deep insight gathered from each exchange on the House floor also served to go beyond partisan politics and “humanize” politicians, according to Potter, who, as a department chair, related to McCarthy’s “frustration” regarding the intransigence of his peers.

“It humanized him to have to watch him being publicly humiliated over and over and over again, and I found that quite moving,” Potter said. “I don’t think you have to be a Republican partisan, or a Kevin McCarthy partisan, to feel that human emotion of this man — they are holding what he’s wanted for his entire life, just in front of his nose, and they won’t let him have it.”

It’s also worth noting that the Supreme Court still does not allow cameras in the courtroom, not even when in session – a policy that Carusone believes should remain.

As for whether Carusone and Potter think independent media access to the House chambers should increase — it’s not so cut and dried.

While both experts agree that consistent camera coverage from C-SPAN would boost viewership and insights to moving pieces of the political puzzle, if other ideologically-driven media outlets and cable news channels were allowed into the room, coverage could be used as a “tool for misrepresentation” to unfairly malign or attack politicians, according to Carusone, adding that it could become a “free-for-all.”

“I do like the idea that it’s a C-SPAN-like entity that is really just focused on providing kind of a raw feeds that others use,” Carusone said. “You could see a scenario when Republicans are in control, they would give it to Fox [News Channel] and maybe when Democrats are in control they would give it to MSNBC.”

However, on the other side of the spectrum, while ideologically driven outlets might be able to exaggerate impassioned speeches by partisan politicians to rally constituents behind a representative, C-SPAN cameras would be able to depict a more accurate picture of the crowd — replicating a memorable moment in 1984 when House speaker Tip O’Neill made the controversial decision to instruct the government-operated cameras to pan to the empty room while a young Rep. Newt Gingrich gave a speech, shattering the illusion of the “camscan.”

“[It was] to demonstrate that this was not real, that this was a hollow performance,” Carusone said. “It was really controversial at the time … because there was a deviation from what was the norm, which is that you only cover those two basic things, the podium and the person speaking, and obviously, there’s a lot more going on.”

Allowing C-SPAN full access would also enable skilled video journalists to “apply a journalistic framework” to interactions on the floor, according to Carusone, adding that it would be ideal if the cameras were not controlled by a set of rules that don’t account for journalists, but instead are operated by those trained and knowledgable about the ins and outs of the House.

“These are people who are on Capitol Hill every day when Congress is in session,” O’Connell said. “They’re in hearing rooms, they’re in the hallways, they’re in the briefing rooms — they know these members and they know the stories. That’s why they were able to tell the story.”