"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 10 February 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Lamb to the Slaughter



While C-SPAN peddles the G-rated

myth that temperate debate in a

clean, well-lighted place

advances the national agenda,

corporate high rollers in

sticky-floored lairs receive

silo-sized stacks of corporate

welfare chips in return for cash

they anted up during the

campaign season just past.

Really, you'd have to be living

under a rock not to know that

both the President and the

Speaker of the House will gladly

do you a sweaty, steatopygic lap

dance in return for your

contribution to their respective

PACs. In fact, if C-SPAN

actually adhered to its stated

mission - "To employ production

values that accurately convey

the business of government

rather than detract from it" -

it might turn out to be as

educational as that time we saw

those two monkeys "wrestling" at

the zoo.


[Dead Lamb]

This is not to say we don't

admire this bit of televisual

legerdemain, or that we would

prefer to do without it. After

all, where else can one watch,

in all its mind-numbing glory,

the fruit of the Enlightenment

rot in real time, like a work of

conceptual art? But with 17,000

hours of dead air to fill each

year, the C-SPAN networks also

dredge up and broadcast

"cultural" events like academic

conferences, National Press Club

speeches, and interviews with

intellectuals both great and

small. These treasurer's reports

detailing the profits of

democracy reveal much about

what's wrong with, and

self-righteous about, Brian

Lamb's timorous progeny.



C-SPAN's low-tech,

vérité approach to

the Kulturkampf is superficially

identical, of course, to the

supposedly "neutral" organizing

principle it applies to coverage

of the House and Senate -

namely, that programming equals

pointing a camera at something.

The canard of "neutrality,"

however, usually entices only

that type of person who is

invigorated by PBS pledge

breaks, who prefers his politics

televised and moderated, and for

whom an intellectual diet of

thin, watery monologues is

preferable to the overspiced

opinions of a vigorous debate.



Such info-Puritans believe we

live in darkly partisan times,

and for them Brian Lamb and the

helpful folks at C-SPAN have

elevated to the level of a Holy

Grail nostalgia for our lost

innocence in matters mediated

for 18 years. It seems so

simple, and therefore so

sophisticated: Put policy wonks

in front of neutral backdrop,

let them murmur uninterrupted

into a stationary camera, and -

voilà! - we are

transported back to the days of

Edward R. Murrow or Eric

Sevareid, self-narcotized by

wistfulness for an era before

spinmeisters walked the earth.


To paraphrase Sevareid himself,

however, C-SPAN's impotent

thrusts at the heart of the

matter hold all the thrill of

being nibbled to death by ducks.

Self-proclaimed "C-SPAN junkies"

may think they're mainlining the

cultural equivalent of China

White, but actually they're just

high on goofballs. C-SPAN's

editorial neutrality effectively

neuters anyone who steps before

its flaccid yet unblinking eye;

both progressives and

reactionaries end up

participating in a bricolage of

intellectual tommyrot so

uninspiring and lifeless as to

make us long for the

comparatively scrappy and

vivacious Ted Koppel.



This is not to say we want David

Fincher, or Wieden and Kennedy,

in on the act. Nor, for that

matter, do we much approve of

the plaudits being heaped on

Bill Maher for taking spin to

its logical extreme - stand-up

comedy. Invariably, though,

C-SPAN's one-camera,

one-microphone staging renders

toothless even the most biting

cultural commentary, and crushes

even the most potent of

historical narratives under the

heel of its sensible shoe. The

battle royale between the

corporate monoculture and those

who would oppose it does not

take place in armchairs or on

daises, and ideologies are not

disseminated only in ponderous

books. Those who appear on

C-SPAN know this, and seem to

find the whole experience rather

tiresome. Gore Vidal appears

boozy and bored; William Bennett

sounds sleepy; ditto Betty

Friedan, and Baffler editor Tom

Frank just seems daft. This

turnabout of direction for

television's somnolent properties

would be endearing if it were

more complete - but we're still

put to sleep as well.


Ironically, these cultural

curmudgeons rail - however

weakly - on the one network most

likely to make their criticisms

ring hollow; this is especially

true for the gruff-but-loveable

Frank, whose talk at the Brecht

Forum denounced advertising's

false populism, or, as he called

it, "faux po." There's no

question that dissidence is now

a function of the market, but

what Frank failed to realize is

that the C-SPAN network

functions in the marketplace of

ideas rather like Pier 1, or

maybe Archie McPhee - it's a

storehouse of curios and imports

consumed for their exoticism

rather than for their

functionality. Whatever their

angle, most critics on C-SPAN

come across as little more than

cultural irritants, a topical

rash on a butt being scratched

by the Invisble Hand.



The anesthetization of vital

ideology represented by C-SPAN

favors speakers like the

cheerfully hysterical Ralph Reed

or Charles Murray, who always

provide "hard data": numbers,

charts, bullet points,

overheads. Anyone wishing to

present a systematic critique of

anything tends to come across as

sort of a well-meaning doofus.

As Wallace says to his faithful

dog Gromit after giving him a

collar and leash for his

birthday, "You look like

somebody owns you now."


Still, in a few years, none of

this may matter at all. As you

read this, many local cable

providers are throwing out Brian

Lamb's baby to make room for

Rupert Murdoch's bathwater, and

in all likelihood the

fast-diminishing radius of the

producer-broadcaster daisy chain

will squeeze out the bolus known

as C-SPAN to make room for

other, more easily digestible

infopablum. With unflagging

optimism, Lamb still hopes to

expand his armature to include

C-SPAN3, -4, and -5. The C-SPAN

website already provides

real-time audio, and will later

this month unleash full-motion

video on netizens who can't get

enough of that legislative

stuff. But for the network of

neutered neutrality, the truth

remains the same as it ever was:

A eunuch's life is hard.

courtesy of LeTexan