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Keeping an eye on Congress - Peter Funt

A recurrent cry among Republicans during their successful campaign to take control of the House of Representatives was for greater transparency in the workings of Congress. Frequently citing the closed-door process by which elements of the health-care legislation were approved, newly elected members pledged to make their deliberations more open to public scrutiny.

So it may seem contradictory for Speaker John Boehner to have recently rejected a request from C-SPAN, the cable channel dedicated to covering Congress, for permission to provide more intimate and subjective coverage. C-SPAN's chief, Brian Lamb, was quick to respond: "We're disappointed to learn that despite 32 years of experience with televising its sessions, and in an age of ubiquitous cameras in political life, the House of Representatives has chosen not to allow C-SPAN's cameras into its chamber to cover its sessions."

Lamb is quite right about his organization's illustrious history as a non-profit organization funded by the cable-TV industry. Providing gavel-to-gavel coverage of both the House and Senate, as well as access to the recently unveiled web site of clips from the extensive C-SPAN archives, are valuable ways of preserving democracy.

However, Speaker Boehner was wise to turn down C-SPAN's latest request.

In his appeal, Lamb is making a distinction between the long-running coverage furnished via a video feed controlled by Congress itself, and the new proposal under which C-SPAN would add its own robotic cameras to provide "a more complete picture of the legislative process."

C-SPAN has made similar requests in the past - to both Democratic and Republican Speakers - and has continually been rebuffed. But in the latest exchange with Boehner, Lamb quotes the Speaker himself when he noted, "Since the first New England town meetings of the colonial era, open government has been a hallmark of American democracy."

The issue, however, is not open government. The likely product of coverage that goes beyond a standard shot of the podium is members yawning or even dozing off; colleagues chatting when it would be polite to listen; the likelihood of seeing members tapping away at their Blackberries, and, of course, a sea of vacant seats. Also likely is the fiddling with these images on YouTube and programs like "The Daily Show," not to mention in heavily-edited campaign ads.

Such a result would serve no real educational purpose, nor would it shed additional light on secret deal-making behind closed doors. It can be argued, as Lamb presumably would, that the presence or absence of members and their degree of attentiveness is relevant. But such information, when provided only by pictures, can be misleading; commentators would be needed to explain why members might be absent - and before long, C-SPAN would become just an extension of the commercial networks.

Lamb argues that under his plan, viewers would see a "journalistic product," rather than a static feed. It's an issue for legitimate debate - the very sort of thing the U.S. Supreme Court wrestles with during its periodic evaluation of possible TV coverage during its public sessions. The Justices, wisely, have thus far said, no.

Along with the desire for "transparency" on Capitol Hill is the need for greater civility and decorum, particularly in the House. Allowing C-SPAN's coverage to inch toward television's omnipresent "reality" shows would not keep the more undisciplined members in check. To its critics, C-SPAN's bland coverage of Congress is at times like radio with pictures. We hear what is being argued from the podium without benefit of surveying the chamber for reaction.

But that is also one of C-SPAN's greatest virtues. Despite its vital contributions, C-SPAN is not really a journalistic endeavor in which material is sorted and edited to create an objective summary. Rather, C-SPAN is the keeper of a vital, unedited public record.

During major events, when multiple networks provide coverage, many viewers gravitate to C-SPAN for the express purpose of avoiding the cutaway shots and split-screen distractions provided by commercial broadcasters.

The public is best served by preserving not only the decorum of Congress, but also the decorum of C-SPAN's coverage.

This column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc. newspaper syndicate. Peter Funt is a writer and public speaker. He's also the long-time host of "Candid Camera," and may be reached at www.CandidCamera.com,