House rules dictate that when the legislative body is not in session, C-SPAN cameras must be shut off. With the House in recess during the sit-in, the normal method of televising action on the floor was off the table. But as some Democrats streamed footage of the scene from their smartphones, C-SPAN put the feeds on air and tried to explain on social media why its regular cameras were out of commission.
C-SPAN has no control over the U.S. House TV cameras.— CSPAN (@cspan) June 22, 2016
C-SPAN's decision to work around the rules and show the sit-in was — rather predictably — viewed by some as a sign of political bias. When Republicans held a sit-in in 2008 to protest high gas prices, C-SPAN cameras also went dark; carrying a Periscope feed wasn't an option back then.
Conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt didn't seem to mind C-SPAN's move, however.
Seems House Dems are intent on demonstrating their lack of seriousness for entire country to see. I hope CSPAN carries them live for days— Hugh Hewitt (@hughhewitt) June 23, 2016
This isn't the first time C-SPAN has been accused of taking sides, of course. More often, the charge is that it has a conservative bias.
In 2007, the Center for Economic and Policy Research published a study that concluded C-SPAN favors right-leaning think tanks — by a lot.
This study’s main finding is that C-SPAN coverage of think tanks overwhelmingly favors conservative think tanks while left-of-center think tanks are underrepresented. In 2006, conservative think tanks received 43.76 percent of total think tank coverage. Conservative/ libertarian and centrist think tanks received 6.94 percent and 31.76 percent respectively. Center-left and progressive think tanks, on the other hand, only received 12.73 percent and 4.86 percent respectively. Thus, the combined conservative and conservative/libertarian think tanks got an absolute majority of 50.7 percent representation on C-SPAN. Everything left of center got only 17.59 percent, just one third of the coverage received by the Right. C-SPAN’s coverage of think tanks suggests it has failed to fulfill its mission to provide “a balanced presentation of points of view.”
In 2005, the media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting examined the political affiliations of guests on C-SPAN's "Washington Journal" program during a six-month period and determined that the show was "skewing rightward."
Out of the 205 partisan guests, Republicans outnumbered Democrats nearly two to one (134 to 70): Republicans accounted for 65 percent of Washington Journal’s partisan guests, while Democrats made up 34 percent. No representative of a third party appeared during the study period.Elected officials who appeared on Washington Journal were slightly more balanced than overall partisan guests. Of the 97 elected officials appearing on the show (senators and House members), 58 were Republican and 39 were Democrat — a 60 to 40 percent imbalance in favor of the GOP.
C-SPAN's supposed conservative bias also has been the subject of occasional grumbling on online message boards for Democrats. The liberal press watchdog Media Matters for America has complained about C-SPAN allowing guest Sharyl Atkisson, a former CBS News reporter and critic of President Obama, to "spew Benghazi myths."
When researchers at Duke University studied various news outlets' social media accounts in 2011, however, they found C-SPAN to be virtually dead center — if anything, a smidge to the left. That study looked at media companies' Twitter networks (who they follow and who follows them) to help determine ideological leanings.
"We would say that our estimates relate to the perception of a given entity," David Sparks, one of the authors, told Forbes at the time. "However, for the purposes of our paper and possibly for thinking about the media, perceptions may be what is actually important."
That would be good news for C-SPAN — suggesting most people see it as neutral, despite occasional criticisms.