Dem protest ignites debate about control of House cameras

Dem protest ignites debate about control of House cameras

Rank-and-file Democrats are calling for C-SPAN to be given more control of cameras in the House after the blackout of their sit-in on gun control.

The cameras in the House have long been under the control of the majority party, despite vocal protests from C-SPAN and government transparency advocates.

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The arrangement was thrust into the headlines this week, when House Democrats began a sit-in on the floor to protest inaction on gun-control legislation. When Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) began speaking at the microphone on the House floor Wednesday surrounded by dozens of colleagues, the video feed on C-SPAN suddenly went blank as Republicans gaveled the chamber out of session. 

Democrats protested the move, but quickly found a workaround, using Facebook Live and Periscope to broadcast their sit-in live on social media. C-SPAN began airing the Democratic footage, live and unedited, effectively making the blackout moot.

“We were able to work around it because of some very bright young people in our caucus,” Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) said. “But it’s just not acceptable that in a moment where there was a serious discussion about an issue of tremendous importance to the American people, that the microphones were shut off and the cameras went dark. That is inconsistent with our democracy.” 

Cicilline, who helped organize the sit-in, said Congress should reevaluate media access to floor proceedings, and said he would back a plan to allow C-SPAN to operate its own cameras in the chamber. 

"I would absolutely support that. I think it makes a lot of sense," said Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.), whose Periscope stream of the sit-in went viral.  

Reporters are not allowed to take pictures or video recordings of the House floor. Lawmakers are also barred from taking pictures or videos, though Democrats flouted that rule during their sit-in.

C-SPAN's broadcast, which it provides as a public service, relies on the House's own feed. It is managed by the House Recording Studio, which is under the umbrella of the majority leadership.

C-SPAN and other media outlets that want to pick up the feed have no say on the video, audio or camera angles.

“I think C-SPAN ought to be able to run the cameras as it determines how to manage them — not us. Because obviously, as we saw, the institution will be self servant,” said Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyHouse passes series of measures hitting Russia, Putin Exclusive: Biden to run for White House, says Dem lawmaker Dems struggle to turn page on Omar controversy MORE (D-Va.), who has also been a strong advocate of getting cameras into the Supreme Court.  

C-SPAN, which has been broadcasting since 1979, has been fighting a losing battle with the House leadership for decades to get more access to the House floor. 

It has made unsuccessful requests over the past few decades to install a few of its own robotic cameras, which could capture reactions and extra shots of the chamber that are currently restricted. 

But while relinquishing control of the cameras has the support of some Democrats, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) does not appear to be among them. 

Though she urged Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanFormer Dem candidate says he faced cultural barriers on the campaign trail because he is working-class Former House candidate and ex-ironworker says there is 'buyer's remorse' for Trump in Midwest Head of top hedge fund association to step down MORE (R-Wis.) to turn the microphones back on during the sit-in, she brushed off questions about taking control of the cameras away from leadership. 

She said the debate is irrelevant because technology and social media today allowed Democrats to circumvent the blackout. 

“It is almost irrelevant now because technology enables Periscope to take us out,” she said. “The control of the House, yeah, that belongs to the Speaker.” 

Back in 2006 when, when Pelosi was Speaker, she rebuffed C-SPAN’s request for robotic cameras, saying they could mess with the “dignity and decorum” of the chamber. And when Republicans took to the House floor in 2008 to talk about high gas prices and demand a vote on offshore drilling, Democrats turned out the lights on them. 

Republicans noted that the rules governing the camera feed were approved at the beginning of the Congress, and stressed that the rules must be followed.

“This is the way the rules work in the House and they have ever since we’ve had TV,” Ryan told CNN. 

While the sit-in has been a publicity boon for C-SPAN, it has also highlighted the power of new social media platforms that are increasingly prevalent in the halls of Congress.

Periscope and Facebook Live took a starring role on Wednesday. C-SPAN aired the near constant Periscope feed of Peters and the Facebook Live video of Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas), and the dozens of smartphone videos by lawmakers were viewed millions of times.  

While Democrats succeeded in getting their message out, some media experts say that misses the point because the public shouldn’t have to rely on members to act as broadcasters.

“Neither party should be able to shut down cameras in either chamber,” Poynter Institute president Tim Franklin said. “Those cameras should be live and providing a pool feed for news organizations, period, and then journalists can make their own editorial decisions about what’s newsworthy and what isn’t."