Congressional Transparency: The Camera Eye

The concept of transparency in government isn’t new. But the definition of what constitutes transparency is up for debate.

An interesting phenomenon is sweeping Capitol Hill these days. Within the past few years, hundreds of Congressional offices now upload millions of pages of documents, photos and videos to websites, Face book and YouTube. Often in the name of transparency.

The idea is that more is better. And technological advances enable lawmakers to bypass traditional media outlets and communicate directly with voters and constituents. The availability of cameras, printing presses and broadcast TV and radio transmitters were limited just a few years ago. Now via the internet, everyone can talk to everyone, produce their own pictures, and videos the way they see fit.

This is crucial in politics. Perception is everything. The Washington spinmasters can buff a politician’s image by controlling the message. That means lawmakers don’t always have to talk to a journalist to propound their message. They can curb their exposure to reporters and spout their views without facing challenging questions from the scribes.

There’s nothing wrong with this approach. Members of Congress have long communicated directly with their constituents through the franking privileges. That’s where lawmakers can send mail by simply signing their name in the place of a stamp on an envelope.

But the nexus of video and the internet now permits lawmakers produce their own videos and post them on the web.

Hundreds of lawmakers do this. Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) is a good example of this. Before his election to Congress, McHenry worked for a Washington, DC, firm that specialized in the intersection of politics and new media. Search McHenry’s site and you’ll find a video of the Congressman looking into a camera and answering questions submitted by constituents.

Constituent Felecia Prewitt asks if the health care law can be overturned and if Congress has to be enrolled in the plan. McHenry then answers.

“If Congress is under ‘Obama-care,’ I think they’ll quickly realize how destructive and how wrong it is,” McHenry says in the video.

The framing of the video is average. The audio echoes. But McHenry gets his message out.

Meantime, other lawmakers have infused a “news” look into their video production.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. That’s the panel charged with electing Democrats to the Senate. Menendez’s team produced a series of 2010 Senate race previews and uploaded them to YouTube. In the videos, Menendez sits behind a traditional news anchor desk. A colored map of the U.S. serves as a backdrop. States featuring 2010 Senate races are illuminated. Then, like a traditional news broadcast, a graphic appears over Menendez’s left shoulder. The graphics show pictures of the Democratic Senate candidate and propound positive factoids. For instance, the graphic for Democratic Missouri candidate Robin Carnahan reveal she received more votes than any candidate in state history during her 2008 Secretary of State contest.

Then the graphic switches to show Carnahan’s opponent, Rep. Roy Blunt (R-MO). The picture features Blunt standing with controversial former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX). Bullet points tell the audience that Blunt was a “Key Tom DeLay Lieutenant” and note he voted with President Bush 93 percent of the time.”

Of course, all the viewer gets from Patrick McHenry is his opposition to the health care bill. All the viewer hears from Bob Menendez are good things about Democrats and negative things about Republicans.

Keith Carney is the head of FedNet, a private news service that video of Congressional hearings, press conferences and events to the public. Carney’s become a watchdog of how official Washington distributes its message. He’s disturbed at how lawmakers are circumventing media and going straight to the public, unblemished.

“It’s all control. It’s everyone wanting to control the message,” Carney said. “It’s not news any more. But the people throughout the country think it is news. It becomes a political infomercial.”

Over the years, dozens of House and Senate committees have started shooting their own hearings and webcasting them. For many years, watching C-SPAN was the only way someone who skipped a hearing could hope to view it if they weren’t there in person. But now people can go directly to the committees and watch the proceedings provided directly by Congress.

That raises another question: is a Congressional committee’s depiction of the hearing a fair representation of the proceedings?

For instance, camera angles, framing, lighting and sound all impact how the public perceives someone. There’s concern among journalists that Congress could someday prevent electronic media from covering hearings. Instead, the committees will provide their own feed of the event for all to consume.

“There is much consternation among House members as to the angles and who controls the cameras,” said Carney.

Private TV cameras are rarely allowed in the House and Senate chambers when either body is in session. The feeds you view on C-SPAN, or even news clips on FOX or ABC are shot by the institution and provided to them free of charge.

However, the House and Senate cameras don’t show reaction shots, let alone video of lawmakers talking or cutting deals in the back corner. There’s never a view of bored lawmakers filing their nails, reading the paper or even napping. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) briefly tinkered with permitting reaction shots in 1995. Then rank-and-file lawmakers complained the cameras were showing them in a bad light.

So do the government-controlled pictures present an accurate representation of the event? Or are things tilted in favor of lawmakers?

Then there’s the question of what is said and done outside the viewfinder. The public and press have excoriated lawmakers for decades for conducting closed negotiations in “smoke-filled rooms.”

The Obama Administration caught an avalanche of criticism for not holding its health care bargaining talks in public. During the 2008 campaign, President Obama said that he would have the discussions “televised on C-SPAN.” Republicans took that broken campaign promise and ran with it as top administration officials huddled day after day in the Capitol office suite belonging to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

Still, any lawmaker will tell you that if you’re trying to craft an agreement or wade into a sensitive political issue, those conversations are best done in private. In the back of the cloakroom. In a Senate hideaway office. Maybe during a late-night walk from the Capitol to the Washington Monument.

Any journalist, politico, news junkie or policy wonk in the country would love to be privy to those conversations. Because that’s where the real decisions are made.

David Almacy is an expert on the confluence of politics and new media. He served as the first internet guru at the White House under President Bush. He says that the most blunt discussions are never publicized.

“Sometimes I refer to this as the paradox of transparency,” said Almacy, “Once the camera's turned on and the people in the room know that the cameras are on the conversation obviously changes.”

For instance, Keith Carney questioned the “openness” of a forum House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) hosted about jobs alongside Reps. Peter Roskam (R-IL) and Aaron Schock (R-IL). Boehner’s “America Speaking Out” project telecast the discussion with business leaders live on the internet. The three lawmakers then answered reporters’ questions at a press conference. But journalists were not permitted into the room where the event took place.

Later that day, the GOP’s “America Speaking Out” posted a press release touting the forum.

“Demonstrating Commitment to Transparency, Event Streamed, Posted Online,” trumpeted the statement.

“I don’t know how you get more transparent than a live stream,” said Schock when asked about the criticism.

However, that didn’t impress FedNet’s Keith Carney.

“It’s the party in control of the signal that’s in control of the message,” Carney said.

But Brendan Buck, a Boehner aide who handles press for America Speaking Out, defended the decision to bar media from the room but allow everyone to watch via the internet.

“This was never meant to be a press event,” said Buck.

He even countered David Almacy’s point that people are less forthcoming without journalists looming.

“It’s our hope that the conversation will be more candid without a media presence. Almost surreally, people are now saying (it’s) counterproductive because people won’t be as open. There has to be a happy medium in there somewhere,” Buck said.

And that’s the challenge. Finding a happy medium between transparency and a commercial.

Officials haven’t always conducted the public’s business in public. And the emergence of new technology begs the question of whether it actually grants more openness. Or just the appearance of openness.