Tuesday, March 16, 2010

C-Span and transparent government

C-Span has announced that its entire archives will now be available online, free o' charge (see the NYT article here).

Transparency in government is a quality reformers have sought for centuries, fed in part by Americans' preoccupation with conspiracy (see Robert Alan Goldberg's Enemies Within [Yale, 2001] for an interesting historical account of this predilection). If we can see what "they" are doing, so it goes, "they" can't get away with "it," whatever "it" may be.

In many historically verifiable cases, this is a grand thing. Take United States Senator John Mitchell (R-Oregon)*, for example. Mitchell was a turn-of-the-twentieth century statesman (extremely broadly defined) who was in the pocket of railroad, timber, utility, banking and saloon interests in a state marked by such corruption that railroad property was assessed at less than half the value of properties in neighboring Washington--and a third of the value of railroad property in that paragon of rectitude, California. Mitchell served as senator for twenty-two years whilst serving as a legal counsel for railroad entities. He was also a very naughty boy in other arenas of existence, if you catch my drift... meeting his demise, however, via the extraordinarily unlikely route of a failed dental extraction in 1903.

Try to get that one by C-Span.

That said, however, one wonders whether the transparency afforded by C-Span may in fact shield us from the deeper insights that investigation, analysis and commentary offer. Certainly C-Span offers some of this, and I have absolutely nothing against the institution that has offered my sole television exposure to date. But I do find that often we rely too much on what people say and not enough upon what they do. How does the rhetoric of the House or Senate floor translate into policy? What do the words our representatives say really mean? State's rights; federalism; constitutional authority... all of these are terms with meanings that plunge far below the rhetorical surface.

C-Span has provided us with a wonderful tool. The key is in how we use it. Will we allow ourselves to be caught up in the shouting, or can we utilize the power of "you are there" footage to underpin informed discussions of our recent political history?

* No known relation to Nixon Attorney General John Mitchell

Information on Sen. Mitchell comes from The Oregon Story (The Oregonian; Graphic Arts Center Publishing, 2000).

No comments: