When Democratic members of Congress staged a dramatic demonstration on the floor of the House of Representatives, seeking action on gun control legislation, C-SPAN’s television cameras were not able to show the proceedings.
That’s because the cameras are operated and controlled by the government — specifically, the Republican leaders of the House and the recording studio that works for them.
When the act of congressional disobedience began, House Speaker Paul Ryan said the House was in recess, and the TV cameras were turned off accordingly.
That’s when the phone cameras were turned on.
Several legislators snapped photos and streamed live videos from the sit-in, providing constituents and television producers with raw images in ways that weren’t possible a decade ago.
C-SPAN started televising Periscope and Facebook Live streams from the floor in lieu of its usual top-down camera views. The videos were amatuerish (stick to your day jobs, legislators) and the streaming signals were shaky. But the videos were embraced by social media users who wanted to see what was happening.
The legislators were flouting longstanding rules against photo-taking inside the House chamber — rules that pre-date the Periscope and Facebook Live era.
The social media coverage of the demonstration showed that historical restrictions on access to the House and Senate chambers are no match for legislators’ own smart phones.
Rep. Scott Peters was one of the impromptu hosts of the sit-in — because he live-streamed scenes from the protest via the Periscope app, which is owned by Twitter. Others preferred Facebook.
Some of the Democrats quickly turned the lack of traditional television coverage into a talking point.
“@HouseGOP turned off the cameras; see our #NoBillNoBreak sit-in live on my Facebook page,” Rep. Barbara Lee tweeted.
But the images quickly migrated to TV too. C-SPAN rolled on the Periscope feeds, Facebook videos and tweets. So did CNN and other cable news channels.
A graphic on the bottom of C-SPAN’s screen tried to explain the strange situation: “Democrats began sit-in at 11:25am ET; House is currently in recess subject to call; House cameras are not permitted to show sit-in; Cameras in chamber controlled by house.”
Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer argued (in a tweet) that the TV blackout “generated even more attention” for the Democrats’ cause.
That appeared to be true on Wednesday afternoon.
But the roles have been reversed in the past.
In 2008, when Republican legislators, then in the minority, held a protest on the floor, the Democrats in the majority adjourned the House, causing the cameras and microphones to be turned off.
As for Wednesday’s blackout, “all members of the House of Representatives voted on the rules governing floor proceedings at the beginning of the Congress,” a House GOP leadership aide said, and one of the rules stipulates that the TV cameras are “only on when the House is in session.”
“This rule of the House is being enforced, as it has been since TV cameras were first installed in the House,” the aide added.
The controversy with the cameras might have a silver lining at least from C-SPAN’s perspective: Increased public awareness about how the cameras are actually operated.
While C-SPAN declined to comment, C-SPAN’s political editor Steve Scully was blunt in a tweet: “Blame Congress not CSPAN.”
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