Baltimore Sun

Epic Sunday: History on C-SPAN, heartbreak on CBS

You can have your red-carpet, here-come-the-stars, pre-Oscar, Hollywood, hot-dog telecasts on ABC all you want. I will take Sunday at 1:35 p.m. on C-SPAN when the cable channel's democracy-verite cameras showed members of the U. S. House of Representatives walking up Capitol Hill to execute one of the most important votes in American history.

All praise to C-SPAN for throwing everything it had at covering this healthcare debate for more than a year -- especially in the early going in 2009 when even some of the 24/7 cable channels didn't think the committee meetings and town halls warranted much attention. Thanks, C-SPAN, for understanding that even in this revolutionary era of new communications, TV is still the great media midway of democracy in American life.


And again on Sunday, the cable industry's public affairs channel was all over the story, interviewing reporters and legislators, taking calls from across the nation, and most of all, showing us as much of this historic moment as government would allow.

Full disclosure: As a loyal University of Maryland graduate (Ph.D., 2000), I did have a second TV in the room tuned to the basketball game. But as crazed a fan as I am, I didn't look away from C-SPAN's coverage in the House until Michigan State was already ahead of the Terps 22-10. Forgive me, Testudo, for I have sinned.


Everyone in the world of TV news -- even MSNBC -- knew the story on Capitol Hill was a monumental one Sunday. (I am not being partisan or nasty with the MSNBC remark; it is the so-called news channel that normally does prison documentaries instead of news on weekends. The NBC sister channel was doing one of those low-rent docs Saturday at 4:34 p.m. while the rest of the TV news universe was reacting to President Obama's soaring speech to House Democrats.)

Fox News and CNN brought their A-games Sunday. I very much liked the huge one-whole-wall look into the House chamber that CNN provided from its D.C. Studio. I absolutely loved the passion Donna Brazile brought to the analysis in that studio. It is amazing how the energy and intelligence of one informed guest can light up a TV screen and make issues come to life. Bravo Brazile.

Not that the issues and main story needed much help when it came to passion Sunday. By 3:34 p.m., Democrat Louise Slaughter and Republican David Dreier were in something just short of shouting match on the floor of the House as the pre-vote debate started. Clearly inspired by the President's Saturday speech, such Democrats as Georgia's David Scott were urging colleagues to "step forth in faith and courage." The New-Testament-like rhetoric was through the roof -- in a very good way.

What drama -- Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak coming out with a press conference shortly after 4 p.m. to announce he was voting with Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

"And that's the ballgame," CNN's Candy Crowley said by way of perfectly succinct analysis.

Whenever there was a break in the action in the House Sunday afternoon, one of C-SPAN's democracy-verite cams showed us a quarter-screen shot of the protesters outside on Capitol Hill.

I couldn't help but smile at all the mis-informed media analysts over the past few decades who have insisted that TV would lead to citizen apathy and undermine democracy.

Sorry folks, that's not what I saw Sunday on my screens.


UPDATE: OK, it is 5:30 p.m., and I can finally bring myself to write about the final five minutes of the Maryland-Michigan State game. Maryland's breakneck rally made for about three minutes of some of the greatest college TV basketball I have ever seen. But in the end, it only made it all the more heartbreaking. Despite (or because of a pinched nerve in my neck that has all but immobilized my left arm), I fell out of my chair when State hit the final shot at the buzzer. I am still in a kind of shock -- from the loss, not the fall.

But I will be sticking with S-SPAN, CNN and Fox News through this landmark event until the final vote is tallied, healthcare legislation is passed and President Obama addresses the nation on this epic night. Please stop back.

UPDATE 10:35 p.m. -- What a difference in the closing speeches of John Boehner, minority leader, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Even though he framed his remarks within the larger philosophical concept of whether representatives should vote the will of their constituents or their own beliefs, he was angry, bitter and caustic.

Pelosi, meanwhile, spoke to the better angels of the American experience -- inclusion and opportunity for as many citizens as possible. Pelosi has assured herself a place in the highest ranks of Congressional history this weekend.

UPDATE 11 p.m. -- And what drama with Stupak himself rising to shoot down a last-ditch procedural attempt by Republicans -- called a motion to re-commit -- to derail the legislation. According to CNN, someone on the GOP side shouted "baby killer" at Stupak as he finished his remarks. If the report is true, that harsh and ugly break with decorum is likely to be debated for days and could come to stand for the divisiveness and anger in the House Sunday night.

Kudos to CNN: Wolf Blitzer and John King are essentially co-anchoring the coverage, and King especially is constantly backgrounding, explaining and clarifying events in the House as they unfold. Strong work by Dana Bash on Capitol Hill and Ed Henry at the White House. Gloria Borger offering some nice analysis alongside the stalwart performance of Brazile who brought a sense of moral authority to CNN's coverage that no other media outlet could touch Sunday.


It's 11:55 p.m., and the day is coming to an end with the president speaking live.

"In the end, another stone has been firmly laid in the foundation of the American dream," Obama told viewers. "Tonight, we answered the call of history...."

And most of us engaged in this profound civic  experience through our television sets. Think of that the next time you see a bumper sticker that says, "Turn off your TV."