Keeping C-SPAN Inbounds

By Butters, Patrick | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 13, 1999 | Go to article overview

Keeping C-SPAN Inbounds


Butters, Patrick, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Looks can deceive. John Splaine can tell you something about that.

On the surface, Mr. Splaine looks exactly like who he is: a bespectacled, respected University of Maryland education professor, author and all-around good guy.

Get him in front of a classroom or into a seminar at C-SPAN, however, and he's the ghost of Harry Truman injected with rocket fuel.

"In class, I throw all kinds of red herrings at students to get 'em to think," he says in a booming voice that claps as if just rolled off a mountain.

A favorite that he casts out with supreme relish: During the Vietnam War, was the United States' entry into Cambodia an in-va-sion or an in-cur-sion?

Like any college professor, he pauses. You pray he's not waiting for you to answer. Mercifully, he continues.

"And I ask 'em loaded questions," he says. "Well, you have to unload the questions at C-SPAN."

C-SPAN, which stands for Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network, celebrates its 20th anniversary Friday. It began in 1979 with gavel-to-gavel coverage of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Since 1987, Mr. Splaine has planted himself once a week in the cable news network's sixth-floor offices on Massachusetts Avenue.

He coaches people in front and behind the camera, a tricky art - keeping bias out of the all-but-objective business of reporting the news. He's an ombudsman in a business that sorely needs one.

He talks of "the mission." C-SPAN's mission, he says, is to let the message, not the messenger, carry the event. Mr. Splaine looks for subtlety: Watch that the lighting does not detract from a subject. Even the camera can lie, whether it focuses too long on a subject, zooms in too fast or comes in too tight on a subject's face.

"These are examples from various presentations that he has made," says Bruce Collins, C-SPAN vice president and general counsel. Those so-called subtle aspects of television reporting, he adds, can distort or add to a message. ("C-SPAN helps everybody look good," Mr. Splaine says.)

Sitting in a borrowed C-SPAN office, Mr. Splaine guffaws at the dramatic view of the Capitol through his picture window. Even showing that landmark in the background of a newscast is a no-no because it seeks to heighten the messenger's status. Fix the camera on the subject and the message, Mr. Splaine says.

Former Baltimore Sun staffer Bill Thomas wrote in 1996, "That's because C-SPAN officials see public-affairs television as an endless dialogue in which everyone, no matter how obscure, misinformed or out-and-out-wacko, is entitled to his or her air time."

That's also why C-SPAN spends so much time on what the networks miss: the so-called dull time of setting up before or taking down after an event.

One reporter recalled how C-SPAN's pre-coverage of a 1996 presidential debate spoke volumes of the tension between President Clinton and GOP rival Bob Dole as they nervously waited for the action to begin. ("Video verite" is a phrase C-SPAN folk like to use.) It's this all-or-nothing part of the mission that Mr. Splaine enjoys.

* * *

So Mr. Splaine comes in once a week and looks at C-SPAN tapes. He talks to interviewers about questions they'll ask. Sometimes he'll even field a comment or two from a viewer and perhaps explain why C-SPAN had to cut away from Brian Lamb's popular "Book Notes" program for a congressional roll-call vote.

Because he's a consultant, Mr. …

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