I’ve been watching the Democratic Convention on C-SPAN, a channel that has no commentators, no analysts, no commercials, no crawls. If applause goes on for ten minutes, C-SPAN shows ten minutes of applause. If there is a hole in the program because someone spoke shorter than the schedulers expected, C-SPAN shows what is going on in the hall during the hole in the program.
The only things added are occasional boxes at the bottom of the screen announcing the order of upcoming speakers or interviews scheduled for the next morning. There are brief cutaways during the speeches, sometimes just giving the flavor of the room (people in their buttons and silly hats, waving flags and dancing with enthusiasm that seems generated as much by the presence of cameras as by feet that won’t stay still), sometimes showing celebrities (half of "Sex in the City" was there), and sometimes showing political figures reacting to the speeches (my favorite was Hillary Clinton, not looking the least bit happy during Teresa Heinz Kerry’s performance).
For people used to the constant stimulation of CNN or FOX, the unfiltered presentations C-SPAN can be disorienting. Perhaps it’s like bicycling without the training wheels: if you don’t pay attention, you’ll miss things that matter. On C-SPAN there’s nobody to tell you where you are at every moment. In the spaces between speakers, Fox filled the air with anti-Democrat hatred and the kind of distortion documented in Outfoxed. CNN reporters talked to one another and Wolf Blitzer’s pounding voice, in which all facts are of equal value,* went on and on, like the big bass drum that has no melody but which trumps every other instrument. And all the time-when speakers were speaking or when the commentators were commenting-the Fox and CNN screens were ablaze with logos, inserts, crawls, cutaways, cutins, cutouts, cutups, cuteness. They were busy, busy, always busy.
All their talk reminds me of the worst English teacher I ever knew, someone who parsed everything to death so there was not one bit of poetry or meaning left, someone for whom talking about the poem was infinitely more important than experiencing the poem, and whose own voice was infinitely more important than the poet’s. When Ted Koppell said there were 15,000 journalists covering that convention, I imagined that you could hear the buzz of every one of them talking at once, their voices drowning out the vastly outnumbered delegates and speakers.
I roamed only briefly, then went back to C-SPAN, which was, for all the yelling and cheering by the delegates and the live and canned music blaring, tranquil by comparison. C-SPAN doesn’t fill every inch of space; there is room on C-SPAN for a person to think.
Emile de Antonio, the great political documentary filmmaker who died in 1989, disliked television-except for C-SPAN, which he had on much of the time. It was the only channel, he said, that let you see anything entire. All the others gave you snippets, sound bites, always with more talk by the newscaster than the person making the news. You could learn things about people, de Antonio said, by watching and listening to them for an hour that you could not learn listening to some pundit telling you what was important. The networks, he said, were there for one reason and one reason only: to sell you stuff. And the people who appeared there were salesmen, doing everything they could do to make you keep looking while the commercials rolled. On commercial television, you were the product, the program existed to deliver you to the commercial. The anchors were highly paid, highly-polished performers. C-SPAN has no commercials; C-SPAN has no anchors. C-SPAN leaves you alone with what is going on. There is nothing on C-SPAN except what is on C-SPAN, nothing to C-SPAN other than what you see on C-SPAN.
It was Walt Whitman who wrote the best commentary on this, on the difference in what has been occurring on C-SPAN and on Fox and CNN and networks (during the few minutes they’ve spent covering the convention) these past few days:
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
BRUCE JACKSON is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at SUNY Buffalo. He edits the web journal Buffalo Report. He can be reached at: email@example.com