In an era when nothing can gain universal acclaim in Washington, the universal fanfare that has attended C-SPAN’s 40th anniversary on Tuesday is astonishing. “Happy birthday, C-SPAN. We need you more than ever,” writes The Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty. Her colleague Robert Costa calls it a “national treasure.” Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich says the nation owes C-SPAN “a big vote of gratitude for empowering citizenship in the television age,” while the liberal journalist Josh Marshall, who agrees with Gingrich on little else, says it “is one of the few, unmitigated pluses in the modern media world.”
Anytime so many people agree about something, there’s usually reason for suspicion. C-SPAN has much to recommend it, as these endorsements show. But like every silver cloud, it isn’t without a dark lining. Reporters and Congress-watchers love it for the convenience. Authors love it for the serious coverage of books. Cranky citizens love it for the opportunity to call in. But politicians love it for the chance to grandstand.
The standard joke about C-SPAN is that no one is watching. Back when comedians hosted the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, they practically had a contractual requirement to deliver some jab at the cable network. (I know this because C-SPAN cut together a compilation video of these jokes, which perhaps demonstrates it has a better sense of humor than the repetitive comics themselves. But I digress.) But what if the conventional wisdom about C-SPAN is wrong, and the problem is not that too few people are watching it, but too many? What if C-SPAN is not an anachronism, but an author of today’s political chaos?