At Last, Congress Gets To Be A Tv Director Closeups Are Fine, But What About Those Pesky Echoes?

Posted: March 01, 1994

WASHINGTON — Maybe you've seen it. A member of Congress appears on television, giving an impassioned, late-night speech in the House chamber on an arcane subject like independent-counsel reauthorization.

The TV shows a closeup of the lawmaker, voice raised, eyes glaring, hands waving. Suddenly, the camera cuts away to show an empty chamber.

Stung by the roving camera one time too many in an age when self-esteem is all-important, members of Congress have worked out a deal among themselves that will spare them such embarrassment.

After more than six months of negotiations, Republicans and Democrats have agreed on guidelines that they hope will make House proceedings appear more dignified.

Under the deal, closeups are in, wide angles are out. The House, which controls the cameras, will no longer feed C-Span and others wide-angle shots when "special order" speeches are being delivered.

"Special orders" allow members of Congress to sound off on any topic after the day's business is done.

"Obviously, this is an attempt by Congress to manage its appearance," said John Jackson, political science professor at Southern Illinois University. "But their problems go a lot deeper than that." Jackson characterized the new policy as a "plot" to fix some of Congress' image troubles.

Brian Lamb, chairman and founder of C-Span, the gavel-to-gavel broadcaster of House proceedings since 1979, is not happy with the new policy, which will have a trial run until May 23.

"We as journalists believe that it should be wide open," said Lamb, whose service was not party to the negotiations. "It is misleading to bar the public from seeing that the chamber is empty."

The first victim of the "pan-shot syndrome" was Rep. Robert Walker (R., Pa.). In 1984, Walker was delivering a harsh attack on Democrats when then- Speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill (D., Mass.), ordered the House camera operator to show a wide shot of the empty chamber, a move aimed at discrediting Walker.

"It was political retribution," Walker said.

Eventually, the wide-angle shot became more a standard operating procedure than a partisan stab. Still, the shot had few supporters.

House officials said Republicans have been unhappy about the wide-angle shots for some time and led the push for the new policy.

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