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How government images of today's House vote are carefully fed to American TV viewers


House of Representatives on C-SPAN


House OF Representatives as portrayed via House cameras and strict rules

Those Ticket readers who memorize all of our items will recall this one from Nov. 18 at 8:16 a.m. We wrote about new House Speaker John Boehner's efforts to dramatize how differently his Republicans would run the people's house from the way it was operated by the previous crowd ousted in the Nov. 2 midterm elections.

The visionary founder of C-SPAN, Brian Lamb, took the occasion of those election upsets to plead with the Ohioan that finally after all these years C-SPAN's independent TV cameras be allowed in for daily coverage of the proceedings.

Few people realize that except for special days, like the opening of a new Congress (see top photo), all of the video feeds to the outside world come from government cameras operating under strict government rules (see bottom photo).

Apparently the bipartisan fear has been that independent cameras would focus on....

....whatever was happening or interesting, even if it was empty seats, two people whispering, a member picking his nose or scratching herself. So the official House TV rules strictly stipulate the cameras can only focus on the person talking, no wide shots putting the operations of democracy in a visual context.

American voters and taxpayers, we suggested, could probably handle the burden of seeing the whole House for themselves without, in effect, political censorship of the video feed. What's to be afraid of anyway?

Here's the good news: Boehner hasn't said No to C-SPAN.

Here's the bad news: Boehner hasn't said Yes to C-SPAN.

The folks over at the TV treasure house of C-SPAN are still waiting to hear from the new speaker. The earnest fellow has already cut his own chamber's budget and eliminated a considerable amount of ceremonial foolishness like congratulatory resolutions.

Today, when Boehner's controlling majority is expected to vote to repeal what it calls Obamacare, would be an excellent opportunity for the new GOP leader to say, "You know what? Let's let the people who sent us here see what we're doing. It's not really as bad as they suspect."

Over at C-SPAN, the Republican line is now open.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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I have just finished reading your first article in today's "Top of The Ticket". As a former camera operator for the U.S. house of Representatives, covering exactly what you have described, I'm sorry to say that quite frankly, if the independent cameras were let into the chambers, there would be very little to see.

Yes, it's true that the House Recording Studio has strict rules and a formula that must be followed when shooting the floor proceedings, but there is really not a lot going on off camera. As I'm sure you are aware, each Representative is busy conducting whatever business they have elsewhere throughout the day, be it in their office with constituents, in committee hearings or back home in their districts. They are usually only on the House Floor for procedural votes or if they are about to speak for their pre-designated time allotments on the bill being debated. About the only other time a Representative spends any real time on the floor is if the legislation has to do with a committee that he/she is on or if it is a bill that they are sponsoring.

At the same time I was working the House Recording Studio, I was also a freelance sports camera operator shooting Baltimore Orioles, Washington Capitols and Washington Bullets. (Yes, it has been awhile.) I did this not only for my love of sports but because shooting Congress was so very dry and predictable. The cutaways wouldn't have been very interesting. We had free reign to snoop around with our cameras when the another camera was on the line, and a close up of a starting pitcher having just blown a shutout in the eighth inning is much more riveting than peeking in on Congress. One former Ohio Representative had a terrible habit of picking his nose, some of the older Southern Congressman were notorious for sleeping soundly in their seats until their staff woke them moments before the committee chairman would grant them their time to address the house, but more often than not, the chamber was simply empty. I think that if the public knew this, they might be even more disillusioned than they already are. I was often told by visitors to the Hill of their surprise that the chamber had been empty, as they had assumed that it would be full, every Representative in their seats at all times, not unlike a classroom.

So I wish Brian Lamb all the best with Speaker Boehner, but showing the House Floor in all of its glory isn't going to be very stimulating to the viewing public. All the good stuff goes on behind the scenes.


Barbara J. Langdon


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About the Columnist
A veteran foreign and national correspondent, Andrew Malcolm has served on the L.A. Times Editorial Board and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2004. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books and father of four. Read more.
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