This week, Congress resumed session after its five-week summer recess, hurtling itself once more into the breach of sequestrations, debt negotiations, bloviations. It was time for the American public to perk its ears and become informed.
Enter: “Washington Journal.”
“Our job is to explain how Washington works,” says Michele Remillard, the executive producer of C-SPAN’s flagship morning show. “We’re dorking out here,” she says cheerfully of what it means to work on the program. “We love it — we can do two hours on Medicare.”
This is a brag, admittedly, that works best in Washington.
“Washington Journal” has been C-SPAN’s premiere call-in program since 1995. C-SPAN has been America’s public affairs cable channel since 1979, specializing in “gavel to gavel” coverage of hearings, votes and floor speeches. Far, far away from the fall fashions and back-to-school pancake recipes of other early-hour TV, on “Washington Journal,” congressmen and politicos sit for three hours of grilling by involved citizens. Producers attempt to patch in 60 calls every show.
It is, therefore, the geekiest morning show available on television: the kryptonite to frivolity and the window into the minds of your fellow voters.
Dialing fingers poised, callers? Dialing fingers poised. ’Tis the season.
At 6 on a recent morning, members of “Washington Journal’s” small production staff gathered in a windowless conference room in their North Capitol Street offices to go over the upcoming show. It was violet outside; the sun hadn’t yet begun to rise over the Capitol’s dome, four blocks away.
“Can we fit, ‘What do you want to hear from the president on Syria?’ on the screen?” asks the day’s host, Pedro Echevarria, a tall, broad man with silvering hair. Each morning’s broadcast has a dedicated topic for callers to respond to.
“I don’t think that’s going to fit,” line producer Lindley Smith says sadly.
They ponder a few other wordings. “I really like the ‘What do you want to hear’ option,” Echevarria says, coming back to the previous idea. “It fosters the most discussion.”
After the meeting, Smith explains how he prepares for each broadcast: reading morning papers, highlighting pertinent statistics and poll results — “Just whatever is trending in the news,” he says, then makes a face. “I hate that word. Trending.”
‘Washington Journal” is the anti-trend show. Anti-chatter. Anti-flash. Its on-screen graphics resemble something cooked up by an industrious ninth-grader, e.g., a close-up of a newspaper marked up with yellow marker. Its on-air discussion topics resemble a civics teacher’s fever dream. One morning this week, at the same time that Dr. Oz was pretending to give Billy Crystal a proctology exam on the “Today” show, the host of “Washington Journal” was asking his guest, in a pleasant monotone, “Where do we stand on immigration reform?”
“You get to hear from the public,” says Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) one of the two members of Congress appearing on the show Tuesday, emerging from her 45-minute slot with the exhilarated look of a runner completing a half-marathon. Hearing from the public is a good thing, she says. Guests get to “get into the weeds a little.”
“It’s a great show,” says Chris Smith (R-N.J.), the other guest congressman, as he leaves the green room. “They give you time to answer. You get time to explain your positions and be held accountable.” Also: “I have some of the original mugs,” he boasts. “I love those mugs.”
Yes, the “Washington Journal” mug, a status symbol in the hip-to-be-square world of Capitol Hill. The slow-paced world. Procedural. Peel back the striving, grimy layers behind “This Town” — the version of Washington everyone’s talking about — and behind it you find this other version of wonk Washington, in which un-status is its own kind of status.
“Journal’s” hosts aren’t marketed as stars — they rotate every day, never introducing themselves by name on air. Their goal is to be viewed as facilitators rather than personalities, quashing the ego that normally accompanies on-air personalities. While Matt Lauer is reportedly paid $25 million per year on “Today,” the budget for the entire C-SPAN network is $60 million. It’s almost artisanal.
It can afford to be, because it’s a nonprofit that doesn’t depend on ratings, and therefore doesn’t need viewers (100 million U.S. households have access to C-SPAN; in one of the network’s recent surveys, 47 million adults say they watch it at least once a week).
“Guess what?” line producer Smith says excitedly, returning from his monitor a few minutes after the meeting. “The Syria question fits!”
They run it across the screen, along with call-in numbers for Democrats, Republicans and independents.
At 7 a.m., the show begins. Thirty seconds later, the first caller has rung in: Betty, from Ridge, N.Y., calling on the independent line, wondering when the administration is going to start being truthful with her.
Lee is the first guest; the New Jersey congressman is the second. And throughout the broadcast, questions from callers keep rolling in.
Congress is rife with partisan rancor, and its approval ratings are dismal. Calls to “Washington Journal” often reflect that anger; the job of “Washington Journal” is to distill these concerns into their purest form.
One caller wants President Obama to discuss Islamists in relation to possible conflict with Syria.
Another would like to know where Canada stands in all of this.
“Why is that important to you?” Echevarria asks.
“I’ve been in the world a long time,” the caller begins. “And Canada is never involved. . . . Canada’s always quiet.”
Brian Lamb, the founder of C-SPAN, is the godfather of the network’s call-in programs. He developed the idea in 1980. (The first caller was a man named John, from Yankton, S.D.)
Lamb is now 71 and looks a lot like Ed Harris. He keeps a bust of Tweety Bird next to the busts of U.S. presidents in his office. He says that when he was beginning his career, there was no way for Americans to talk back to their televisions: Information was all trickle down, not trickle up. He liked the idea of an open dialogue between citizens and people in power.
Now retired as chief executive, Lamb still comes into the office every morning, usually by 6, greeting staff members by first name, nicknames, inside jokes.
He was watching the news last night, he says, “and Bruno Mars was a story. . . . It blew my mind that that was news.”
Not on C-SPAN. Not on “Washington Journal.” Not in this anti-sound-bite bastion of decorum.
Not now, as the engaged citizens of C-SPAN trudge onward, the long fall season of our governmental deliberations stretching ahead. And so they beat on, wonks against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the passing time of governmental procedure.
This time in history, Lamb says, “is a fantastic time to know what’s going on.”