At the time this article was published
Lawrence J. Janezich is First Assistant Superintendent with the Senate Radio
and Television Gallery, Washington D. C. This was an abridged version of a
presentation to the Special Committee on Reform of the House of Commons during
its visit to Washington in February 1985.
The history of broadcast coverage of Senate
committees in the United States can be divided into two periods. The first began
in 1947 when a Senate committee was covered by television and lasted until the
early 1970s with the advent of electronic video cameras.
During this early period, broadcast coverage
of Senate committees was minimal. There were almost never more than three film
cameras in a committee hearing. There was no immediacy: film had to be
developed before it could be put on television.
Senate rules permitted committees to allow
broadcast coverage of their hearings if they wished, under such rules as the
committee might adopt. Many of the most important committee meetings, such as
committee mark-up sessions (where the final form of a bill is agreed upon) and
conference committees (held to work out differences between House passed and
Senate passed versions of a bill), were closed to the public and press.
The second period has been marked by three
major occurrences, each of which has had an enormous impact on broadcast
coverage of Senate committees.
In the early 1970s electronic video cameras
brought portability and immediacy to the television news business. Still,
initial development was slow as the industry phased out film cameras and
replaced them with electronic ones. Senate committee coverage was not that much
different from what it had been in the earlier period. This changed in the
second half of the 1970s due to several developments.
The first of these was the Watergate
scandal, which had two direct results. First, television coverage of the Senate
Watergate Committee hearings made its chairman, Senator Sam Ervin, a celebrity
– a media star – and gave national recognition to Senator Howard Baker and
other members of the committee. Second, Watergate resulted in government
reforms which began an overall trend within the institution of Congress toward
In 1975, as part of the open movement, the
Senate voted unanimously to pass a Senate rule providing that all committee
hearings, mark-up sessions, and conference committees would routinely be open
to the press and public unless a majority of the committee voted to close them.
The rules further provided that when these hearings or meetings were open to
the public, they might be broadcast by radio or television or both, under such
rules as the committee or subcommittee might adopt.
The passage of this rule reflected
widespread feeling among members of the press and some members of Congress that
the public had a right to know and be informed of decisions being made by
Congress which would affect them. This feeling was especially strong among the
Senators and Congressmen elected in the first post-Watergate election.
The idea that the public has a right to know
contradicted the maxim under which Congress had been operating – that
government functions best at the lowest level of visibility.
The matter was complicated by another
development, rooted in yet another Congressional maxim a member's first duty is
to get re-elected. What happened in the early 1970s is that members began to
recognize the value of television as a campaign tool. Being an incumbent gave
one a forum from which to speak. It became important to know how to relate to
the media and to take advantage of opportunities to utilize the media.
A third major development was the technical
development of satellite technology, which enabled a correspondent and camera
crew in Washington to broadcast live to a station anywhere in the country at a
reasonable cost. This technology resulted in a proliferation of news bureaus in
Washington, as smaller broadcast companies sent correspondents and camera crews
to cover the government from the local angle. In five years, membership in the
Radio-Television Galleries doubled – from 900 to 1800. This increase was
reflected in television coverage of Senate committees, which went from a
maximum of four cameras in 1970 to twenty or more in 1981.
Problems Arising from Television Coverage of
Problems fall into two related categories.
The first is a physical one of space: how to accommodate the numbers of
electronic journalists who want to cover Senate hearings. Committee hearing
rooms were not designed to permit television coverage. There are only two rooms
in the Senate complex large enough comfortably to accommodate ten cameras – and
these rooms are usually used for purposes other than committee hearings.
We found that the large numbers of cameras
in committee hearings; interfere with committee operations and occupy space
intended to be utilized by committee staff and Senators' aides. There is a
series of secondary problems related to the question of space and the faulty
design of committee hearing rooms. We have problems providing parking for
equipment vans for organizations which want to cover committee hearings. We
have problems trying to accommodate the parking of microwave vans for
organizations which want to broadcast committee hearings live.
We have problems overseeing the installation
of equipment to provide the temporary capability to broadcast committee
hearings live. This often involves wires strung long distances down halls and
microwave transmission equipment placed in hallways, in Senators' offices, or
on ledges around the office buildings. (There are ongoing plans to permit the
installation of permanent microwave transmitters on top of one of the Senate
Office Buildings, to which the news organizations would have access as needed.
Installation of transmission cables in committee rooms is also being
contemplated as a way to link hearing rooms with microwave transmission
equipment located on Senate Office Buildings).
Senators also complain about the television
lights being too bright and the room being too bright and the room being too
warm as a result of those lights.
In response to space problems, committees
have been limiting the number of cameras permitted to set up in a hearing room,
or insisting, if more than a certain number of cameras want to cover a hearing,
that television coverage be pooled. Pool coverage means that one network will
set up a camera in the hearing room and provide an electronic feed to anyone
who wants it by means of a piece of equipment called a distribution amplifier
set up in an adjoining room or hallway.
Pools can effectively be required under
current circumstances, only when at least two of the three major networks
decide to cover a hearing. With one exception (C-PAN), independents generally
do not have the equipment to provide a pool.
The three networks co-ordinate coverage of
Congressional events among themselves to avoid duplication of technical
lighting and audio coverage efforts. When pools are required, the networks assign
one of their number to provide the necessary equipment and personnel. The
networks resist pools and protest them as a matter of policy, believing it is
in the interests of the news industry, for each organization to have its own
camera. They, also resent providing a free ride to independent organizations.
If the committee insists, however, the networks will comply.
Networks want all those who participate in a
pool to share the costs of providing the pool. Efforts to institute a fee have
not been successful, primarily due to lack of agreement on a fee and how to
An alternative discussed with Congress from
time to time is an institutional pool, with television coverage provided by,
Congressional personnel and equipment to anyone who wishes it, much as is
currently the case with the coverage of the House of Representatives.
There are three purposes served by having
television in Senate committees. First, to inform the public; second, to focus attention
on some issue; and third, to promote the images of individuals or party. The
last purpose, however, has the potential to interfere with informing the public
and indeed with the functioning of the institution.
Let me cite two minor examples of how
partisanship has interfered with television's purpose of informing the public,
and interfered with functioning of the institution – or at least changed the
institution in subtle ways.
First, partisan Senate re-election
organizations within the respective parties utilize open coverage to videotape
Senators in action at committees for "videotape press releases"
distributed free of charge by satellite to television stations in the Senator's
home state. It is possible that a Senator might alter his behaviour under such
circumstances. Further, the video tape releases compete with regular news
organizations which cover Washington for stations in the Senator's home state.
Secondly, in most Senate committees, the
majority, party arranges committee member seating so that members of the
majority are facing the cameras, while members of the minority have their backs
to the cameras. In major hearings, networks overcome this by setting up a
Assuming that the primary reason for
admitting television coverage to Senate committee hearings is to inform the
public, the question is, does having cameras in committee hearings really
further public understanding? In many cases, it does not, due to time
limitations of television news programs, and the tendency of commercial
American news programs to focus on dramatic exchanges.
In other cases – where organizations devote
a greater amount of broadcast time to committee hearings, it can increase
public understanding of issues.
It is impossible in the short run to reverse
the trend toward open government. Institutional pressures, as members become
creatures of television, become too great. But it is important to remember that
the institution has a higher interest than short-term political gain, and that
it does not help to let the press or public interfere with committees'
operation. When the press or public is admitted under conditions which make the
situation unmanageable for the committee, or so uncomfortable that no one can
follow the proceedings, then open government defeats the purpose of open