Is it good for the United States that Congress has not yet elected a speaker of the House of Representatives? No, not really. But amid the chaos, the American people have gained something rather unusual, which could actually be valuable for our democracy: days of C-SPAN footage providing unprecedented insight into how our elected representatives actually work and interact with one another, close encounters of the kind we never see when Congress is actually in session. The more Rep. Kevin McCarthy struggles to lock down the top job, the more we get to see just how and why our legislators behave the way they do.
The reason for this incredible access has to do with the normal rules governing media coverage of the House floor. Usually, journalistic outlets aren’t able to record House sessions on their own. Rather, the federal government itself provides a feed that’s subsequently picked up by news networks as needed. But there are some exceptions that allow journalists to enter the chambers and broadcast the goings-on straight to their viewers. One of these is the speaker’s election. Since there’s a stubborn contingent of conservative Republicans opposed to the prospect of McCarthy leading their party, this election is still ongoing. As of Thursday, we’re close to having experienced a dozen voting rounds. The proceedings are being memed almost as fast as they’re appearing on your screens, starring a cast of Main Characters including but not limited to Rep.-elect Pinnochio himself, New York’s George Santos. It has been great TV.
C-SPAN—and Congress—was supposed to have packed this all up already. Yet the crew has made the most of this suspension, rolling the cameras each and every moment so that citizens can learn what’s really happening. On Thursday afternoon, shortly before the House took its ninth failed speaker vote, I called the network’s director of editorial operations, Ben O’Connell, to talk about the painstaking efforts C-SPAN is taking, the bizarre nature of this stressful week, and the unexpected benefits of this mess. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Nitish Pahwa: This has been a pretty wild week for C-SPAN. Has there ever been any moment you can think of that even compares remotely to what’s going on?
Ben O’Connell: It’s hard to think of an event that had this much attention over such a sustained period of time. There were certainly moments in the past where people were talking a lot about us but it was typically an event: one day, or a political convention. But now, we have people thanking us for continuous coverage without any commentary for all of the speakers over the course of three or four nights during a convention. It’s not entirely unusual for us to get some attention, but this does seem like it’s on a different level.
From your vantage point, when was the moment you all realized that this speaker vote was going to be way longer than anticipated, and that there might be some key coverage opportunities here?
For me, it was after the end or the middle of the second vote, when it was clear that it wasn’t going to be resolved in the second vote. That’s when I thought, “Wow, we may be in this for a day, two days. I’m not entirely sure how long.” But that was the moment for me.
In terms of coverage opportunities … just to back up a second, most of the time when the House is in session, the cameras that people are watching at home are all operated by government employees, by the House Recording Studio. We’re taking a feed that is provided by the government to all media outlets, and even on the House’s own website, to show what’s happening on the floor. On some occasions—State of the Union addresses, joint sessions, foreign dignitaries addressing joint meetings, and elections for speaker—independent media cameras are allowed in the House chamber on what we call a pooled basis. Meaning that one network does it, and all the other networks that are media entities that are credentialed for Capitol Hill coverage are entitled to that video.
The speaker election is always fascinating because it’s one of the few times when you’re able to see what’s happening on the House floor aside from the person who’s speaking. When the government-operated cameras are going, they operating under strict guidelines: They can show wide shots, and they can show the person speaking, and that’s it. They can’t show reaction shots. They can’t show people in the back of the chamber chatting with one another or sitting in the seats speaking with one another.
Every time there’s an opportunity for independent media to be in the chamber, we look for those. We want people to actually get an idea of what it’s like to be in there. We want to see a reaction shot for someone speaking at a podium. We want to see what other people look like when they’re listening to that person. The speaker elections provide an opportunity to do so. It’s always great. But it doesn’t always go … what, we’re going into the [ninth] vote and third day? So it’s provided us the ability to show this story in a way that people just aren’t used to—I think a lot of people are tuning in for the first time and seeing something that doesn’t look like what they’re used to seeing on their televisions when they think of the House floor. And I hope they’re thinking, “Man, I wish it looked like that more often,” because we sure do.
Just speaking as a journalist, I definitely agree with that. You mentioned House members talking with each other or listening from the seats. I think those have provided some fascinating moments for everyone watching this: Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez talking with Rep.-elect Paul Gosar, or with Rep.-elect Matt Gaetz. Or even Rep.-elect Cori Bush reacting to Republicans nominating alternate candidates like Rep.-elect Byron Daniels. It seems like you have a lot of leeway over what to show to audiences. How does it get decided which people, which faces, which moments to put out there?
I’m going to give a ton of credit to our camera operators and our directors. They’re the ones who are making the decisions on the spot as to, “What am I going to put in my camera?” And, from the director’s perspective, “Which camera am I going to put on there?” I am very lucky to work with an extraordinarily talented group of field techs.
Beforehand, we sit down and talk about, what is it that we think people are going to want to see? Who are the key players? We’re not—I’m certainly not—micromanaging which shot to take at any given time. We also talk about things that aren’t necessarily about people: The vote tally board that’s up behind the dais in the House of Representatives, you never see that on the House feed. We want to make sure that we’re putting people in the room and we’re doing so in a way that’s really going to represent what it feels like to be in the room.
Is there a control room somewhere from which you all are helping direct the cameras if need be? Or is it more like, “All right, you guys, go with God”?
Where we would direct something like this depends on the production. In this particular case, we’re directing it out of one of the House office buildings, so it’s not in a big control room. It’s in a shared media space where we have some permanent infrastructure that is suited for a director and an audio operator to be sitting there. If there’s any tweaks that I think we may want to make, I will text the crew just to say, “Hey, guys. Can we slow down the cameras a little bit as we’re moving from person to person?” But there are only two or three of us who would text them anything, and we haven’t had to do a whole lot of it.
Texting, that’s primarily the mode of communication from central to your people on the ground?
Between central and the field crew that’s in the Capitol, it would be a text or maybe a phone call, although it’d have to be real quick because these people are busy. But there’s a constant conversation among field crew in the chamber with the director and audio operator. They’re wired into a system where they can speak with one another so that the director can tell the camera operator, “Camera one is hot. Camera two is hot,” etc. They can also have a conversation like: “Lauren Boebert’s coming up to vote. Can you make sure to get a good shot of her?” Those kinds of conversations would be ongoing throughout the production.
Is there a directory of all the Congress members that you keep track of, or is it more that you’re looking at, as you mentioned, who are the most prominent names right now?
There are two lists. One is a list of the people we would like to see voting, if possible—meaning, we want to get a clear shot of them standing up and saying a name that’s relatively tight so you can absolutely tell who they are, so you can see their face. Then we have a second list that is every single member of Congress, alphabetized by last name. The field crew uses that to have a rough idea of who the next person is that’s being called to vote.
A couple of our directors have told us that this is one of the hardest things to direct at C-SPAN, because the clerk says a name, the member stands up, says a name, sits down, and then the clerk moves on to the next member. It happens real fast. So there’s no way for us to chase every single member and see them all stand up, say a name, sit down, without it looking like a hot mess on air. But if they know if the next person is a Democrat, or the next three people are Democrats, we know that the cameras that could have the best views of Democrats are going to be the cameras that the director is going to rely on for those next three people.
A lot of people observing this from the outside are clearly having a lot of fun, but I assume the filming style isn’t going to be super wacky, right?
No. I mean, we want our coverage to represent what’s happening in the room. A lot of fancy camera work, a lot of stylized directing isn’t going to do that. It works really well for movies or TV shows, we do want to have a production that is dynamic and engaging, but I’m not sure that there’s a lot of experimentation, at least not in terms of style, that’s helpful to us in that regard.
Is there anyone in the House who’s really stood out to you in terms of their behavior—how they’re interacting with their peers, or how they look at the cameras?
I’m not sure that there’s an individual that stands out to me. There are a lot of moments and conversations that stand out to me. I mean, I find it fascinating to watch Matt Gaetz, who maybe just hours ago was speaking with a group of Democrats, including Jerry Nadler. Man, I would love to know what they were talking about. It’s fascinating to me to watch Marjorie Taylor Greene or Jim Jordan speaking with some of their Freedom Caucus colleagues who are voting against Kevin McCarthy. Those interactions, I think, are really interesting.
I’m sure you have quite the array of cameras and crew down there. What happens when a speaker is finally voted in?
As soon as the speaker is elected, they will then swear in the other members into the next Congress, because right now they’re all members-elect—none of them are representatives.
Right, we don’t even have a Congress right now.
Right. So they will swear in the next Congress, and then after that we have to pull our cameras down. And if they continue with other business, it would be from the government’s operated production.
We have three cameras in the chamber. Our techs have to turn the cameras off, and then they’d be able to break it all down and take it out without being particularly disruptive to the rest of the operation of the chamber.
How many people are down there? Are they all working overtime, and then hitting up the D.C. happy hours?
We have six people actively working in the field on this production at any given time: the three camera operators, a director, an audio operator, and someone who’s in the chamber acting as a kind of spotter, trying to assist the camera operators and figuring out where people are sitting, because you’re not really sitting in any discernible order. We also have a seventh person who’s coming in and relieving people as need be, if they need breaks for whatever reason. We have staffed it so we have these six people and who came in at a specific time—we know the sessions are going to beginning at noon, and we then have a later crew that comes in mid-afternoon and are available to take their places in the evening, should that be necessary. So, last night it was necessary. Later, we’ll find out.
What’s been your favorite part of the mass reaction to the C-SPAN feeds this week?
My favorite part of the mass reaction to our coverage is that it’s happening. It’s informing a lot of people who maybe otherwise didn’t know that C-SPAN can be really exciting and provides an invaluable service.
Is there a particularly favorite meme you’ve seen out in the wild?
There are any number of memes out there that I’ve found interesting or funny. There’s a Twitter account called Bad Lip Reading that does voice-overs that almost match some of the conversations that we’re seeing on the floor. But the conversations are all absurd gibberish, which is amusing.
This week, we’re seeing the way that lawmakers actually listen to and interact with one another—and expressing, perhaps, how they really feel about one another. I wonder if this is what more viewers will want going forward: this type of deep insight into House activity, and further transparency as to the proceedings. Do you think this will help spur some movement in that direction, a different media relationship with this Congress? Or is this a fun week and then back to business?
Your lips to the next speaker’s ears, right? I would love it if Americans watched this, saw how engaging it was, and started telling their members, “I want to see that when a major piece of legislation is on the floor, I want to feel like I’m in the room, I want to have more transparency into the lawmaking process,” which is, I think, what that would provide. So, man, I hope so.