C-Span Refuses to Answer Questions About Its Call-In Policies

Ever since a host for C-Span's "Washington Journal" allowed an obviously bigoted caller to discuss how America was "jewed" into Iraq, I've been trying to get an interview with C-Span's vice-president for programming, Terry Murphy. I want to talk with him about the network's call-in policies, but so far it's a stone wall. C-Span's spokesman, Howard Mortman, eventually e-mailed me the following statement in response to my requests:

The call-in program has been a fixture of the C-SPAN networks for nearly all of our three decades.  Our mission statement commits us to providing the audience with "direct access" to our guests on an "open basis".  The live, town-hall format of the program can occasionally give rise to distasteful statements by callers making it to air, and the January 4 call is an example. We air approximately 400 calls per week and this kind of language is not typical of the vast majority. Program hosts, whose role is to facilitate the dialogue between callers and guests, are certainly permitted to step in when a caller makes ad hominem attacks or uses obscenity or obviously racist language.  Given that this involves quick judgment during a live television production, it's an imperfect process that didn't work as well as it should have that day.

I wrote Mortman back, telling him his statement leaves unanswered various questions, most notably, Why does this seem to happen with such frequency on his network? And I asked again for an interview with Terry Murphy or another senior executive. Mortman wrote back: "Jeff -- we're letting the statement speak for itself."

But the statement doesn't speak for itself. Yes, it speaks to C-Span's willingness to pin the blame for public screw-ups on a single employee, but this was not Scanlan's fault, because this was not a one-off event. C-Span's "Washington Journal" is inundated with anti-Semitic and racist callers, and most hosts are similarly robotic in their responses to these bigots. So there is obviously a deep problem here, one that should be addressed publicly. But Terry Murphy -- who is in charge of programming for a network created to hold government officials accountable and to make transparent what was previously opaque, won't even get on the phone to answer questions. A journalist, in other words, who won't answer questions! Not a great precedent. (This, by the way, is a bit of a theme this week -- see this Andrew Sullivan post on getting John Heilemann and Mark Halperin to explain their reporting methods for Game Change.)

I wrote Mortman again, promising that I would publish the entire Murphy interview as a Q-and-A, but he did not even answer my e-mail.

Mr Murphy! I don't bite. I just want the chance to explore your network's policies with you. This is obviously a problem for C-Span -- I've heard from a number of colleagues (mainly Jewish) who will no longer agree to go on "Washington Journal" because of the frequency of insulting, anti-Semitic callers (I myself stopped going on the show after one caller said, "I can tell by looking at you that you're Jewish," and then proceeded downhill from there. The host in that instance also did not end the call.) 

So call me back! Be as accountable as you would like everyone else to be!

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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