When someone writes the history of media’s digital transformation, what happened Wednesday night and Thursday morning in Congress ought to get a paragraph or two.
Put it under the heading of “democratization.”
It was the triumph of live video — and the elimination of the middleman.
The background: As Democratic lawmakers staged a sit-in on the House floor to try to force a gun-control vote, C-SPAN’s feed was shut off. That happened because Speaker Paul Ryan, calling the event a publicity stunt, had declared a recess. House rules dictate that when Congress is not in session, C-SPAN shuts off its cameras.
The sit-in, led by Democrat John Lewis of Georgia, kept happening but the feed went dark.
But faster than you can say Gutenberg, new technology came rushing in. Using Periscope and Facebook Live — two ways for anyone with a smartphone camera to capture live events and transmit them to the universe — a couple of congressmen took over where C-SPAN had left off.
And C-SPAN, to its everlasting credit, felt it was its responsibility to pick up the feed, shaky and flawed and unprofessional as it was.
“It showed that you don’t need government cameras and you don’t need TV networks to speak to the nation. Anyone can do it,” Jeff Jarvis, who writes and teaches about digital media, told me. (In fact, C-SPAN is funded by the cable industry, though it’s affected by the government’s rules of operation.)
The “anyone” this time happened to be a congressman with an iPhone. But the point is larger. The anyone could be you or me, and the implications are boundless. The public is quite familiar with phone-wielding citizen journalists, who have captured everything from police brutality to the horrors of the Orlando massacre. But this took it one important step further.
“We are all C-SPAN now,” Mark Halperin of Bloomberg News told the Huffington Post last year, explaining why he had just bought himself an iPhone tripod. He said he was planning to live-stream moments from the campaign trail, using Periscope, or Meerkat, a similar app.
Live video was already having a moment this week with the news that Facebook plans to pay out $50 million to media organizations and individuals to capture live events. Jarvis compared this moment to one decades ago, when network TV cameras began bringing the Vietnam War into the nation’s living rooms. Americans suddenly had a much more visceral sense of what was happening. Some saw it as the beginning of the end, as citizens turned against the atrocities they were seeing in a faraway place.
“And that was film that was edited, with narration. Now, we’re seeing things as they occur,” Jarvis said. “How will that change things?”
It’s sure to do so, but will all the change be for the better?
Maybe not. Twitter, too, is praised for democratizing media, allowing a moment-by-moment global transmission of events and random musings. But it would be hard to find anyone to say that Twitter’s effect has been entirely positive, given its reputation as a cesspool of trolls and a haven for pack journalism, as well as an incomparable information source.
One thing that is certain is that live video is here to stay, in politics and beyond. (That beyond may include the sublime, but surely also the ridiculous: Witness BuzzFeed’s transmission of a watermelon explosion, which in April had 807,000 people watching Facebook Live video at the same moment over a 45-minute process of increasing the pressure with rubber bands until the messy moment of truth.)
The moment in Congress had more gravitas than that — a low bar, to be sure — but it also proved a point: That the sun is setting fast on efforts, politically motivated or otherwise, to control what consumers can see.
Media outlets and those who own and run them are accustomed to being the gatekeepers. But the gate just got pried open wider.
It will be instructive to see what comes streaming (make that live-streaming) in.
So, stay tuned. That part, at least, should be easy to do.