Sunlight Live vs. TV Media, Ctd: David Foster Wallace, Transparency, C-SPAN, Health Care Reform and Data Jamming


There’s a been a bunch of writing around the Internet about the success/failure of last week’s Blair House health care summit. A lot of the focus has been on the illusion of transparency provided by televising this type of meeting. Now, I don’t completely agree with the analysis Igor Volsky makes here–televising events does not make it transparent, but it does provide opportunities to make events more transparent and interactive. What his colleague Matt Yglesias writes, however, is certainly true: “When you put politicians in a room full of cameras they just posture for the cameras and it’s not possible to get anything done.” And that is simply because of the nature of television. David Foster Wallace probably explained this best in his essay, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction“:

…TV-watching is different from classic Peeping-Tomism. Because the people we’re watching through TV’s framed-glass screen are not really ignorant of the fact that somebody is watching them. In fact a whole lot of sombodies. In fact the people on television kow that it is by virtue of this truly huge crowd of ogling somebodies that they are on the screen engaging in broad non-mundane gestures at all. Television does not afford true espial because television is performance, spectacle, which by definition requires watchers. We’re not voyeurs here at all. We’re just viewers. We are the Audience, megametrically many, though most often we watch alone: E Unibus Pluram.

Television requires performance. Throwing a bunch of people–politicians–who obtain and keep their jobs at the whim of these “ogling somebodies” judging their performance ensures that the viewer will be entertained with canned dialogue and poor acting. (Not to mention the lack of imagination from wardrobe.) The great irony in all of this is the role that C-SPAN plays. Consider this key moment in the evolutionary thought process that led Brian Lamb to found C-SPAN:

At one point Lamb was assigned to monitor an antiwar protest at the Pentagon, and what he saw disturbed him. A group of demonstrators were lounging around, showing no activity until the cameras appeared. “The minute the camera started rolling, the kids got up, the placards came out, and they yelled and screamed, ‘Stop the war!'” One reporter was having difficulty getting his lines out and had to try again and again. As if “by spoken agreement betweeen demonstraters and the news crew–the lying down-and-jumping-up routine repeated itself with each take.” Lamb realized that what he was going to see on the evening news was much different from what had actually happened. (The C-SPAN Revolution, 1996: p. 26.)

This experience helped crystalize Lamb’s desire to create a news channel that simply showed events taking place, unfiltered. But, as Wallace points out, the very presence of that “terrible blank round stare” in your face makes a person incapable of being natural, let alone “acting natural.” For politicians, this is even more evident as they can’t divorce their actions from the perception of them as determined by the audience. A poor performance could cost them their job. The introduction of cameras via C-SPAN into Congress led to a general degradation of debate on the floor of both chambers. In fact, C-SPAN provided the perfect medium for Newt Gingrich and the Conservative Opportunity Society (COS) to turn the floor of the House into a partisan playground in the early-1980s:

Gingrich wanted Republicans to be more conscious of the electoral implications of the bills they supported (or opposed) and to thoroughly politicize every decision. … Younger Republicans called on their party to embrace an aggressive approach that centered on a refined communications and media strategy. “The electronic media is where it’s at today,” concluded Trent Lott. …

Most of Gingrich’s initial plans in 1982 centered on the network news, since at that time cable television was only emerging as a presence. Yet C-SPAN turned out to be a political boon for COS. Gingrich felt that, since C-SPAN lacked any journalistic analysis, it offered a more hospitable forum then the “elite” networks, which leaned toward establishment Democrats and Republicans. …

Through C-SPAN, conservative mavericks took their message directly to constituents. In 1983 and 1984, Gingrich, John Vincent Weber (R-MN), and Robert Walker (R-PA) used the one-minute speeches at the start of each day the longer “Special Order” speeches in the evening hours to attack Democrats. The number of one-minute speeches increased from 110 in March 1977 to 344 by March 1981. COS met at the start of the week, and sometimes informally at the end of the day, to select issues that could be used against Democrats. David Obey warned in 1983 that these kind of speeches “will poison the national dialogue and cripple democratic debate.” (On Capitol Hill: The Struggle to Reform Congress and Its Consequences: 1948-2000, 2004: pp. 213-214.)

And Obey was right. Whenever a party occupies the minority in the House they use one-minute speeches and, to a greater degree, the “Special Order” speeches at the end of the day to assail their oppresors, i.e. the opposing party. Democrats did this during their minority days under President George W. Bush and, at present, Republicans use the “Special Order” speeches to attack the majority Democrats. C-SPAN doesn’t provide for an unfiltered view into the workings of government, but creates a requirement for those participating in government to put on an act for the viewers. Congress is just another rabble of protesters waiting for the cameras to turn on. (This is not to say that C-SPAN doesn’t provide a valuable service to the public, which I’ll get to later.)

The parties now live off of media consulting firms, P.R. flacks, image advisers, social scientists and word smiths so that they can appeal to the audience. And the audience includes those who cover the political process, particularly those involved in televised coverage. Which gets back to the point of this post’s title. The very nature of the reaction that occurs when politicians are shoved before the gaze of the camera alters the political process and the coverage thereof. First, back to one of David Foster Wallace’s points about television:

TV is the epitome of Low Art in its desire to appeal to and enjoy the attention of unprecedented numbers of people. But it is not Low because it is vulgar or prurient or dumb. Television is often all the things, but this is a logical function of its need to attract and please Audience. And I’m not saying that television is vulgar and dumber because people who compose Audience are vulgar and dumb. Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly differeint in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests. It’s all about syncretic diversity: neither medium nor Audience is faultable for quality.

This goes doubly for politics, probably because this is pretty much always been the case for politics even before the wide-spread introduction of television cameras to the process. But television has certainly had the effect of making politicians play to the partisan crowds. This is why cable news tends to follow the vacuous partisan interactions. John McCain and Barack Obama are reliving the 2008 campaign at the health care summit. Is that really what was important? Of course not, but it plays into the established narrative that the politicians have provided for the media. Everyone is on TV and everyone is playing along.

That’s why CNN, MSNBC and Fox News don’t ever give us independent analysts or data-driven information. We get James Carville and Karl Rove; Alex Castellanos and Donna Brazille; and so on. Political hacks with an agenda, clients and P.R. expertise. These are grade-A political actors playing to an audience and thinking about the next campaign. If you want independent coverage based on facts about the goings on in Washington, these people are not going to give it to you. Even if you don’t want independent coverage, you still aren’t going to get any information. They’re just going to keep playing the campaign game because that is what television has excentuated in the political process. Everything is about the next election. Since everything is televised, politicians must constantly play to the audience. But I’d doubt that you’ll get any information about the governing process.

That’s where the Internet, transparency and Sunlight comes in. This is what I wrote last week in a follow-up to our Sunlight Live coverage of the health care summit:

Yesterday, when Sunlight was covering the summit live, we repeatedly heard from people who were annoyed at the CNN “analysts” for talking over the summit. People wanted to pay attention, receive factual supplements to the punditry, and stay informed about what they didn’t know–at the same time.

That’s where Sunlight Live filled in the gap. We provided people who wanted to watch the health care summit with crucial information throughout the seven-hour event with no partisan analysis and no opinions. This included influence data–campaign contributions, personal finances, connections to lobbyists–on the members as they were talking along with previous statements made by participants and related biographical information. Along with this, we provided links to CBO reports, CRS reports, the various plans and bills under debate and various of health care statistics as they were mentioned and answered questions from our audience about their contents. All of this was done in real-time–with a lot of research preparation. If you didn’t want to hear a bunch of people talking about politics on CNN you could turn to Sunlight Live to talk to a bunch of people discussing the information being discussed at the summit. In fact, one of the best aspects of our coverage is that viewer comments helped drive a lot of the coverage and live research that we were doing. As someone who can’t stand the one-way communication nature of television and the constant barrage of campaign-centric focused coverage of politics you find there, I’d say that the perspective Sunlight Live helped to create was refreshing. (I might be a little biased here.)

What we were doing during the Sunlight Live coverage was pushing data out to the public to inform them while simultaneously interfering with the canned messaging of the political actors by showing the facts and information that lives behind their words and actions. My colleague Kerry Mitchell calls this “data jamming,” a la “culture jamming.”

And this is where C-SPAN’s coverage provides a useful service. With the help of online communications, C-SPAN’s raw coverage allows for the viewer to interact, undercut and interfere with the messaging coming from politicians while the video is streaming live. Senator Lamar Alexander can quote from a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) document and President Obama can argue back about the facts of the CBO report. That’s all you’ll get on television. But, with researchers and reporters manning the desk at Sunlight Live we could pull the CBO report up almost instantly and search for analysis of the very point of disagreement between Alexander and Obama. You don’t have to wait to find out who’s wrong, you can know during the event. Other data helps explain the motivations or biases that lawmakers may have. Links to lobbyists, campaign contributions from interested parties, biographical information, previous news stories about their involvement in the health care reform process. All of this helps to disrupt the pre-packaged image that politicians want to transmit to the audience, which is mega-phoned through the television media.

In effect, “data-jamming” aims to make the system transparent by putting it into context. This is a different type of transparency than what we tend to advocate for regularly. But it is ultimately the type of transparency that is enabled by efforts to make the information in and about government more open, available and transparent. Transparency begets transparency. The more information we can extract about the governing process and the influence surrounding it, the better we can jam the politicians and the media who are simply providing scripted performances on television.