The Mirror

How C-SPAN Became America’s Therapy Channel. Can It Cure What Ails Us?

C-SPAN logo.

Betsy Rothstein Gossip blogger
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Unlike any other news outlet in Washington, the whole premise of C-SPAN is that no one employee is a star. There is no one who considers himself or herself a “brand.” And crazily, no one is working to build a “brand” or boost a Twitter following.

Which, in fact, is the brand.

Kind of like Seinfeld — a show about nothing — it’s a channel where hosts seem like blank slates. Maybe they’re a little more like therapists who prod with a nod and won’t tell you what they’re thinking. They are not mannequins. They are supposed to be that way. No reaction. No opinion. Just listen. Inform. Nod. And listen some more.

What a concept.

Before anyone gets insulted, they’re not potted plants, as Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace insisted when he moderated a recent presidential debate.

C-SPAN hosts and producers methodically plan daily news and questions. They correct callers when need be. They challenge when it’s called for. They abruptly hang up on viewers who are racist or intentionally cruel to guests. But for the most part, they listen and facilitate the news.

As you can see, the expression on the host’s face rarely changes.

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Senior Executive Producer and Political Editor Steve Scully got a call on a recent Sunday from a man who “went off about how his mother died and he could smell his mom’s perfume in the house.”

He let him go on a bit. And he explained, “We can show our personality. We just can’t show our point of view. I’m a little more lenient.”

“More lenient” may be a terrible understatement. HBO comedian John Oliver‘s has an ongoing spoof of Scully, a longtime Washington Journal host, being the “Most Patient Man on Television.” He can listen to a caller rant nonsensically about anything for 20 minutes and not want to commit murder. At least not visibly.

I spent six hours at C-SPAN last week shadowing the channel’s morning routine.

Which horrifically began with a 6 a.m. news meeting that was off the record.

In the dark of morning, I clicked for an Uber at 5 a.m. and made my way across town in a sleek, black SUV when Washington is at its best — silent, beautiful and devoid of horns, sirens, noisy opinions and MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” But what was I thinking coming up with this half-baked idea of waking up at 4 a.m. to go hang out at C-SPAN six days before the 2016 presidential election?

There were give and takes. Yes, I could attend the meeting. No, I could not report on it. (Damn it. Did I really agree to that? Media relations specialist Robin Newton, one of my handlers, pulled out an email and showed me that yes, indeed that was in the original agreement.) Yes, I could hang out for awhile in C-SPAN’s subterranean control room. No, I could not report on anything I heard there.

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“It can get pretty raw,” C-SPAN Communications Director Howard Mortman told me of the control room. At least on the day I attended, it was totally G-Rated banter. There was one funny detail that I can’t report.

And really, the only thing more tragic than trying to imagine Breitbart‘s Matthew Boyle as the next White House Press Secretary would be to draw the ire of Mortman for breaking an agreement.

C-SPAN’s vast office space has some very C-SPAN-esque qualities.

Above the black dormitory-sized fridge in the meeting room is a sign that reads, “Taking a bagel? Please take a plate to avoid crumb complications.” Crumb complications? There’s also a framed company mission statement on the wall in multiple rooms. When I asked if employees knew the statement by heart, they looked at me like I was crazy.

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My C-SPAN handlers, who consisted of Mortman and Newton, told me they were taking me to the “green” room, but this was kind of like C-SPAN II. Or Green Room II, which had no guests and was a quiet living room with a couch and big-screened TV for reporters who were there to write about C-SPAN. The view was a spectacular composite of the Reflecting Pool and the Capitol Dome. From time to time, they’d come check on me to see if I needed anything and make sure I hadn’t escaped to any undisclosed location at 400 North Capitol where I was not permitted to be.

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(And I’m joking about their strict checks on me. I could’ve scaled the building if I wanted to.)

The question of the day was: Does religion influence your politics?

“John” called in to say: “Personally, I’m not religious at all. It’s phony. They can abort the baby, but once they have the baby they don’t care. Trump’s the worst thing that ever came down the pike. Trump is a nightmare. This is Hitler and Mussolini all wrapped into one.”

A woman phoned in to say electing Trump would be “opening the gates of hell.”

“Judy” from Iowa added, “I did know all the sins of Trump would come out.”

But they weren’t all against The Donald.

“Saundra” from Summerton, Ala. called in to say, “This will be the last time I ever vote Republican. As far as religion, I’ll vote Donald Trump because I believe he is the only one who will stand up for true religious faith. I pray to God Donald Trump gets it.”

“Barbara” from Pittsburgh says Hillary is her choice. “It always surprises me that Trump can tell these lies. ….There is so much meanness in him. I think she will honestly do the best for our country. I don’t know what’s in her heart, but I trust her.”

“Al” from North Carolina says, “We’re all sinners. …Look at what happened with Sodom and Gomorrah.”

Other topics included the African American voter turnout and the integrity of the voting process.

A male caller: “As a society, we’re more concerned with Kim Kardashian’s rear end than we are with what is happening in this country.”

C-SPAN callers are notoriously brash.

Over the decades they’ve pulled a lot of pranks, including an era when they’d call up on behalf of shock jock Howard Stern to sneak in “Howard Stern” or “bababooey” before the host could cut them off or end of the call. There have been other, more mischievous callers. These are viewers who phone in and say “fuck” before the host can stop them. A guy once called in to sing the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” theme song. Another called in to show off his throat singing skills. There are callers who’ve tried to sneak in the “N-word.”

“We don’t really worry about it a lot,” Greta Brawner (pictured above) told The Mirror after the morning meeting.

Brawner, a Washington Journal host and lead event producer for programming, doesn’t appreciate that the media “cherrypicks” the pranksters, making it seem like the “majority are like that when they’re not. …We don’t have that many of them. They go viral. They tend to be boys who play tricks. We just move on.”

She stresses that typical C-SPAN callers “have thoughtful things to say. It’s from their reality, which we all know is a lot different than the reality inside the Beltway.”

If C-SPAN employees sound a tad defensive and irritated about the pranksters, it’s because they are. Pranksters ruin what they are trying to do — which is to let real people speak their minds. These are not employees who come for a year and leave. Brawner has worked there 10 years. Ruff has been around for 12. The C-SPAN prankster is like the class clown who takes the joke too far. Enough already, they all seem to say.

Hence the brand new 3-second delay.

Much to C-SPAN management’s chagrin, the new delay mechanism was implemented in January — the first time ever in the channel’s history. The straw that broke the camel’s back was an older male caller — “Glenn from Salt Lake City, Utah” — who phoned in to talk to Rep. David Brat (R-Va.).

“My question is since we’re spending all this money, where are we getting the money from?” Glenn asked before adding an afterthought: “And my second question is if I can shit in your mouth.”

Brat wore a semi-stunned expression. He said nothing. The host scrambled to apologize. “We don’t take that kind of language,” the host assured and quickly moved on. Watch a clip of that here.

Adding the delay button was not a light decision. But it was also not a prolonged one. Once this incident happened in December of 2015, higher-ups like C-SPAN Executive Producer Michele Remillard and VP of Programming Terry Murphy knew they needed to act. It defied the core of their mission and they could no longer take the risk.

“It was felt pretty universally that we had to do something about it,” Mortman told me when I pressed him about it.

Beyond that, yes — they laugh about the pranksters. But far more appreciated are the bizarre elements that slip into the calls — like a live rooster.

“She had a rooster who was following her around,” said Jen Ruff, a line producer, of a recent caller who phoned into Washington Journal hosted by Brawner. “She asked, ‘Is that a rooster?’ You’re ready for anything.”

Brawner is clear about what has kept her at C-SPAN for the past decade. “I love learning something new everyday,” she said. “Consuming news for a living is fantastic. Talking to people outside of Washington is refreshing and revealing.”

She explains working for C-SPAN lets her escape the Washington “bubble.”

Like many of her coworkers, Brawner says she could have predicted the populist movement of the 2016 presidential election a few years back. “You listen to the program and you can get a good understanding of the populist movement on both sides,” she said, recalling the distinct murmurings she began hearing in the people who phoned in to the program.

Much like Brawner, Ruff is a devoted C-SPAN employee. It’s not just a job. It’s a mission.

“I kind of feel like I’m a lifelong C-SPANer,” she said after the morning meeting. “It’s the daily challenge of trying to find new faces and perspectives. …If you can learn something we all feel better.”

She came to the channel as an intern and moved her way up to production assistant, associate producer and now line producer. They did try to put her on air once. “I froze,” she admitted. “It was not great. I’m right where I want to be.”

Unlike Brawner — who seems like she could handle a freight train barreling through the set during Washington Journal — Ruff doesn’t necessary think she could keep a straight face through the more wackier calls.

The C-SPAN powers that be were not stingy with interviews. They gave me on-the-record access to multiple hosts, a line producer, an executive producer and all the time I wanted with Brian Lamb, executive chairman and founder who has been at the network since 1980. He still hosts a Sunday “Q & A” program but is largely behind the scenes these days, which seems to suit him just fine for a non-star.

For a place that thrives on politics, there is rarely infighting or discussion on who supports which candidate or party. Employees discuss politics, but they do not divulge their own politics.

Lamb, for instance, refuses to say who he’s voting for on Tuesday. He won’t tell his coworkers. He won’t even tell his wife, relatives or his closest friends. And yes, they’ve all tried to yank it out of him, but to no avail. Can you imagine the scandal that would ensue if C-SPAN endorsed a candidate? Or if you knew who Lamb was rooting for?

Lamb is more of a ham than a lamb.

When I told him I was going to come find him at 10 a.m., after I exhausted myself of every single C-SPAN caller that day, his face seemed friendly, but he said, “Now that you want to see me, I’m going to be busy at 10.” Lamb also popped his head into the 6 a.m. meeting — kind of like a flyover. Not to pull rank. Just to say, hey, I’m here. Which he is every morning around 5:30 a.m.

Are C-SPAN callers reflective of the angry campaign season at hand?

Not necessarily. At least it’s not detectable to the people who work there.

“I’ve been doing this since ’80,” Lamb told me when I found him in his office. “People are angry. They’ve always been angry.”

Remillard stills marvels that so many people phone into the channel. “It takes a lot to pick up the phone,” she said. “Our callers are pretty passionate.”

She believes deeply in the concept of the host not reacting to the viewer.

“By not reacting, it’s saying OK this is the viewer’s opinion,” she said.

Remillard’s resumé includes some of the most opinionated shows out there — she was a senior producer at Fox News, a producer at MSNBC (specifically “Hardball with Chris Matthews”) and a producer for “The McLaughlin Group.”

She explains the difference between acceptable and unacceptable at C-SPAN like this:

“If it’s racist or an ad hominem attack against a guest we cut them off,” she said. But if it’s “‘Hillary Clinton doesn’t know shit about foreign policy,’ we won’t sanitize that.”

Remillard says if she was a political strategist she’d be watching C-SPAN everyday. “People want to blow up Washington,” she said. “This year is different. We’ve seen a wave. None of us are surprised Trump won the nomination and it’s as close as it is. Anyone listening would see that was building.”

While the typical C-SPAN employee does not appreciate pranksters, for many, like Remillard, it goes deeper. “I generally don’t like them because it disrespects the whole spirit of the show,” she said.

Really? She doesn’t find any of them funny?

“Not really,” she said. “But I’m executive producer and I’m not supposed to think it’s funny.”

I raise the issue of the therapeutic effect of the network and the Washington Journal hosts who act as America’s therapists. Remillard agrees to a point. “It’s a skill,” she says of the hosts. “It’s tricky. You don’t want to act like you’re endorsing or disapproving.”

Remillard, who has worked at C-SPAN for the last eight years, sees the network as more of a calling. She said they’ve hosted programs on the criminal justice system in which felons phoned in from jail. On 9-11 and Veterans Day they opened up the phone lines.

“No one else has this forum,” she said with pride. “I like that it’s mission focused. I really think what we do is a public service. We want to teach people. …At the end of the day people just want to be heard and I hope that means people are voting.”

Like Brawner, Lamb describes C-SPAN’s pranksters as “young men who have nothing better to do.”

He said there is a profile of the stereotypical prankster: “Young males on the east coast who don’t have anything else to do. We had a whole period of time when we’d have the Howard Stern caller. The hardest is people who say nasty things to the people sitting there who have no place to go.”

Lamb insists C-SPAN employees laugh at the pranksters as much as anybody. And the channel endures being made fun of on late-night comedy shows. It is occasionally mocked as a sleep aid.

“After awhile we get tired of people saying no one is watching,” said Lamb.

He says C-SPAN hosts are hired with the knowledge that: 1. They will not be stars. 2. They will not react too much to what the call is saying. And 3. They will have some other major duty at the network.

In other words, being a host will never go to their heads.

“It was always our intent that no host becomes a star,” he said. “It’s not their life’s work. No one is hired just to be on the air.”

Big egos are not a good fit. Neither are big emotional reactions. “In the beginning it was a place to be involved in someone’s politics, to not be excited by what anyone says,” he said. “We want people to give their views and not fight with the host.”

Which brings us back to Therapy TV. “No one is telling them how stupid they are,” Lamb said of hosts and callers. “The idea is you don’t make fun of them.”

But what about the woman who phoned in last week who worried that Hillary Clinton will make everyone become Muslim? “Our attitude is if I can figure it out, the viewer can figure it out,” he said. “In spite of what you think, this is America.”

Members of Congress can be complete wimps about appearing on C-SPAN. But considering what Brat endured, it’s hard to entirely blame them.

“Some lawmakers won’t do the show,” said Lamb. “They’re kind of walking on a wire without a net.”

Contrary to popular belief, C-SPAN employees are not devoid of personality. And Senior Executive Producer and Political Editor Steve Scully is no saint. As the understudy to debate moderator Chris Wallace, he nearly ran him down with his car in the garage. Fox News is also housed at 400 N. Capitol, so run-ins are frequent among newscasters.

Scully admitted to The Mirror that he was preoccupied on his cell phone that day and looked up just in time to see Wallace in front of his car. He insists he doesn’t chronically text while driving, but wouldn’t it have been insane if he accidentally ran into Wallace and had to moderate the debate in his place?

On a more sobering note, Scully points to his backup role being a testament to C-SPAN’s unbiased manner.

As in, of course they looked to C-SPAN for a possible moderator.

“We all graduated from the Brian Lamb school,” he said. “You go in with the mindset that it’s not about you.”

Not necessarily Scully.

But like Scully, someone they could trust to be the world’s most patient man amid the treacherous winds of politics in the most vicious campaign season in recent memory.