On June 26, the White House held one of those press briefings that barred cameras and live audio. Thanks to the civic-conscious people at C-SPAN, however, history will be able to record that press secretary Sean Spicer appeared to be wearing dark clothing that day. That’s because C-SPAN’s coverage of the briefing featured a camera focused squarely on Spicer’s lectern, with a cutoff that kept his upper body out of the frame.
As he addresses Russia sanctions, for instance, he rocks left and right, and the C-SPAN camera picks up bits of his right and left pant leg, respectively (see 22:50). Apparently C-SPAN wasn’t found in violation of press-briefing rules, as two executives at the organization tell the Erik Wemple Blog that they are unaware of any objections from the White House.
In any case, the gradual disappearance of the White House press briefing under President Trump has challenged the public-affairs programmer in unexpected ways. Ben O’Connell, C-SPAN’s managing editor, says that the cable industry-funded broadcaster made some key decisions once it became clear that the Spicer briefings in the Trump White House were “editorially more interesting than they had been in the past” — which is a marvelously neutral way of discussing the spectacle of Sean Spicer.
The interplay of Spicer and a crowd of voracious reporters sometimes had C-SPAN displaying split screens for its audience. Though such a maneuver may look effortless to viewers, O’Connell explains that at C-SPAN, it requires planning and investment. In recent years, C-SPAN Production Control Room No. 5 was where they’d put together the broadcasts of the briefings. That particular production control room lacks the capacity to do a split-screen presentation. According to O’Connell, C-SPAN often moved into a different space — one of the “more in-demand and hard-to-schedule production control rooms” — to appropriately capture the interplay between the opposing sides in the briefings.
“There seemed to be more interest, more public interest in the White House than there had been,” says O’Connell.
Notice the past tense: The last televised session from the briefing room was June 29. The broadcasting of audio is delayed until the briefing has concluded, a bit of opacity reminiscent of another branch of government. So what does C-SPAN do now?
“It took a while for us to settle into showing that seal on the wall,” says O’Connell. This is the seal to which he refers:
And here’s an example of a previous no-camera artifact from C-SPAN:
Not to mention the lectern-focus shot at the top of the post. Asked about that instance, O’Connell said he couldn’t indicate for sure how the angle materialized. It’s possible, he said, that it came from a “robotic camera” that can be deployed if staffers are spread thin. “It’s possible we were using a robotic camera and there was not a robotic operator to train the camera over to the wall,” he says. C-SPAN and the Associated Press share resources in recording events at the White House, as part of the “independent” pool; there are two technicians from each organization on duty each day, with an additional producer contributed by C-SPAN and AP on a weekly, rotating basis.
“We decided to start showing the White House seal so that there was something identifiably at the White House while you were watching it,” says O’Connell, who says that the next step on the web presentation is to “marry” a full-screen still image with the audio.
A better solution, of course, is that the White House step out of the darkness and allow cameras to cover the proceedings once again. “The producers who are at the White House acting on behalf of the independent pool — AP or C-SPAN — are always actively lobbying for camera access to whatever event coverage is happening on any given day,” says O’Connell. As well they should, because broadcasting audio-only recordings gets quite static quite quickly — see: CNN’s coverage of Monday’s audio-only briefing.