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The debate over C-SPAN's cameras in the House

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

During the marathon vote to confirm California Republican Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House, some of the best drama on television wasn't on HBO, Netflix or CBS but C-SPAN - yup, C-SPAN, the staid Public Affairs channel best known for its non-flashy look at hearings and floor votes. But thanks to a rule allowing independent coverage of special events, Americans got a rare front-row seat to the action on the floor, which included strange bedfellows conversations between people not known to have much to say to each other and what looked like a near physical altercation.

The Public Affairs channel sent a letter to Speaker McCarthy asking for permission to continue their expanded and independent access as a matter of public interest and transparency. The proposal has attracted support from members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, but there are critics who say allowing even more camera access could play to some representative's worst instincts to create viral moments and get attention. To understand more about this debate, we called NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik, and he's with us now. David, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Pleasure.

MARTIN: Could you just back up a minute and explain the rules. What is normally allowed, and how is that different from what C-SPAN is asking for?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, the deal is that normally, C-SPAN doesn't have control of the cameras. Normally, the cameras are controlled by employees of the United States Congress. And they are directed, of course, ultimately, by the office of the House speaker. And therefore, normally, you know, C-SPAN doesn't have any choice, really, what they're showing you. Things are tightly focused on who's speaking about current legislations or nomination or whatever the issues at hand in front of the House. And that's about it.

But I can tell you, you know, I used to cover Congress a million years ago in the late '90s, before I started covering media. And, you know, as a reporter, you'd hang out. You'd hang over, essentially, the balcony where the press gets to see, trying to see what's going on down below. The House rules prevent that from happening.

Now, it's not that this operated under special permissions that were passed for this. It's that when a new Congress comes in, as happens this month, until the formal rules package is adopted by the House of Representatives, C-SPAN has the right to be able to do this. They have permission to do this. As soon as that rules package is passed, that - it's like a portcullis falls, and it goes back to the way things are.

MARTIN: I think that's interesting. And thanks for reminding us of that, 'cause I'm not sure most people know that this really is state-run television most of the time. If...

FOLKENFLIK: It's a feed.

MARTIN: ...The government's deciding...

FOLKENFLIK: It's a feed. I mean, there's a kind of transparency being offered. We can see it in action. We can see it in real time, but it is tightly controlled by the will of the people who it's ostensibly shedding light on. And therefore, you're not going to see things they don't want to show you.

MARTIN: And so let's just take the arguments separately - the argument in favor for having cameras on the floor, more access.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, look, the first days of this month, I think, provided as strong an argument as you could imagine. You mentioned people almost coming to fisticuffs and clearly a completely unscripted moment showing the dissention within the Republican ranks, the tension, the passion, the fervor about this chasm affecting the congressional party. There were other moments that were incredibly revealing, too. You had the moments where Paul Gosar, a very conservative critic of now-Speaker McCarthy talking to AOC right in the seats of the House.

MARTIN: The Democrat from New York who's considered kind of one of the leaders, certainly one of the most visible members of the Democrats' progressive wing, right?

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah, the so-called squad, right? You - two people you'd be very unlikely to see in any other setting. You know, you see a give and take. You see McCarthy essentially walk up to Matt Gaetz and to others who were blocking his rise to speakership and beseeching them, essentially saying, what do I have to do? And this is the way in which democracy often works. It's messy. People try to find allies in unexpected places. Those fixed cameras prevent you from being able to see them.

MARTIN: Interestingly enough, though, there have been a number of people writing against this, including people who are not necessarily news reporters, but columnists writing in opposition to this or suggesting this is not such a great idea. What is that argument?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, it's - there's an argument in the moment, and there's an argument that stretches back to the past. The argument in the moment is some of these figures in Congress, you know, seem as though there may be a step or two removed from being TikTok influencers, right? You know, Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene and others in Congress seem to be using social media as much as they're using the levers of government and of policy. You have Katie Porter, a liberal Democrat from Orange County, Calif., who's now announced that she's likely to run for Senate, essentially making a theatrical display of reading a book with a title that I can't quite say aloud here on NPR to indicate her level of disgust for what she was suggesting were the theatrics that they're seeing on the other side. And that was captured by the cameras, essentially playing to the crowds.

These are not moments of great public import. These are not moments of great rhetorical heights. They're kind of the ways in which people can play to the most passionate core on either side, maybe to drive up support, maybe to drive up donations. So I think that more transparency shows a benefit for the public. But there are people who feel it would be demagoguery if - the more that you invite that in. Among those who believe that logic is Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts, who has effectively blocked video cameras from coming in and recording what we see happen at the Supreme Court.

MARTIN: So I'm wondering where this goes next. I mean, the skeptics about this are worried that there are already people in Congress who really aren't interested in legislating. They're just interested in getting on television. But it isn't like they don't have the means to get attention for themselves now. So having said all that, do you feel comfortable hazarding a guess about what comes next?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, sure. But to be fair, you know, the new speaker, Kevin McCarthy, is eager to change the story. Our colleague Barbara Sprunt heard back from Mark Bednar. He's the communications director for the speaker. He said, quote, "We are exploring a number of options to open up the people's House to ensure a more transparent and accessible Congress for the American people." Now, this commits them to exactly zero. On the other hand, there are these eight cameras that are in the House chamber. And folks in the speaker's office say that over the past week, under this new speaker, you've been able to see wide shots of the full chamber, much more cut shots of the visitors gallery than ever before and that this should satisfy the appetite. Of course, what that lacks is an independent journalistic decision-making process to decide that separate from whatever the speaker's agenda may be at a given time.

MARTIN: That was NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. David, thank you so much.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.