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C-SPAN Urges Open Debate at Senate Trial

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  • By Howard Kurtz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, December 24, 1998; Page E7

    To televise or not to televise? That is the question C-SPAN wants resolved in favor of the cameras when the Senate begins its impeachment trial of President Clinton.

    In a letter yesterday to Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and a half-dozen other Senate leaders, C-SPAN Chairman Brian Lamb urged that the proceedings be kept open for televised coverage. Since every other step of the process, from Clinton's grand jury testimony to the House debates, has unfolded on television, "the Senate should adopt the same degree of openness for its role in this matter of such great importance to every American," he wrote.

    Senate impeachment rules call for the proceedings to be conducted in public but for the lawmakers' final deliberations – although not the final vote – to take place behind closed doors.

    "If they did close it, it'd be a real cop-out," Lamb said in an interview. "After months and months of all this, to bar coverage at the crucial moment when the senators deliberate, it would leave everyone with this empty feeling. . . . If you had to leave it up to sound bites from senators walking out of the room, you'd get a skewed view of what really went on in the room, and that would be a mistake."

    This, needless to say, was not a problem during Andrew Johnson's impeachment trial in 1868. But senators can change the musty rules with a simple majority vote.

    Lott has not voiced an opinion on televising the trial, says his spokesman, John S. Czwartacki. "These are decisions to be made by the Senate," he said. "No decision at this point has been made either way."

    In recent days, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has argued that the country can do without the possibly X-rated testimony of potential witnesses like Monica Lewinsky. "I don't think the children or the families of America should be subjected to that kind of testimony," McConnell told the Los Angeles Times.

    But a Republican Senate aide said that testimony is likely to remain open unless the Rules Committee and the full Senate endorse an effort to change the existing procedures.

    The Senate, which controls the C-SPAN cameras, has been somewhat more reticent about television than the House. Senators did not allow the cameras in until 1986, seven years after the House did so, after some members complained that their House counterparts were getting more famous.

    Lamb's nonprofit network, which would carry the proceedings uninterrupted on the C-SPAN2 channel, is not the only television outfit with a stake in the decision. CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel would likely provide live coverage as well.

    The broadcast networks, which lose money whenever they preempt their soap operas and game shows, would probably televise only the most dramatic portions – especially since more people watched the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills on CBS last Saturday than watched the House impeachment vote on NBC and ABC combined. And if no deal is reached on censuring Clinton and a trial drags on for months, the proceedings would undoubtedly be left to cable – except for appearances by Lewinsky and Linda Tripp.

    Whatever the length of the trial, Lamb says the denouement should play out in America's living rooms, "in spite of the fact that people are tired of it."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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