Steve Effros rightly gave props in his Thursday column  to C-SPAN for its “classy” inauguration coverage.

Steve wrote that “our own C-SPAN…hewed to its basic premise that viewers…don’t always need someone talking over the event to give their opinion or side-comment on what’s going on!…They just turned the cameras on and let us participate by “being” at the event. It was great, especially in comparison to some of the other coverage.”

Commentator Effros wrote sensibly that he’s not against commentators, but “…it really got out of control when [commentators were on camera] for hours on end and had nothing really of value to say or add.”

It’s a cold day in July when I disagree with Steve, and I won’t now. On the other hand, I am assuming he’s referring to C-SPAN’s daytime coverage of the inauguration, which, sensibly on C-SPAN2, included replays of the events for many of us who weren’t able to catch them live.

As for C-SPAN’s inauguration-evening  coverage, featuring presidential historian, ok, commentator, Richard Norton Smith, and the chairman of Howard University’s history department, Prof Daryl Scott, it was outstanding. And it was so mostly because of the commentators. For those interested in serious political discourse mixed with historical themes, C-SPAN was the only place on the television dial. [You’ll get a feel for C-SPAN’s coverage and the interplay between the two professors by watching just 5 minutes of the broadcast.]

Right out of the box, Scott, alertly prompted by host Peter Slen, noted the inaugural  speech was more “Washington than Lincoln,” and Smith added that parts of it amounted to a stern lecture aimed at Washington, DC’s political culture, a scolding to break free from normal politics and “get real” about the country’s problems. This made it “unprecedented” for an inaugural speech, he said.

Throughout the course of the evening, Smith, on call for the entire 3.5 hours of coverage, was asked to comment on a bevy of topics, from why the day was a victory for LBJ (51 minutes into the C-SPAN broadcast) to the first inaugural ball (200 years ago, for James Madison). Smith handled all with aplomb, loading his remarks with interesting trivia (FDR listed his occupation as “tree farmer” and never attended an inaugural ball, 40 years ago today Rep George H.W. Bush left the Nixon inaugural to bid farewell to LBJ, his fellow Texan, in an act of bipartisan kindness that “we wish our polticians would practice today”-even discussing the music played by Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman just prior to the swearing in ceremony. It would have been interesting to hear Smith’s take on today’s “revelation” that Ma and Perlman were not playing, but “sync-bowing” with pre-recorded music.

It wasn’t only C-SPAN’s staid blue studio set this evening. In an effort to spice things up (how many times can you say that about a C-SPAN broadcast?), cable’s gift to the country peppered its coverage with live remotes from several of the 10 official balls. Yes, C-SPAN made like E! and TV Guide Channel and did party reporting. And even the professors got into the act. After watching a live remote of the Obamas at a ball, Scott said it was clear the first lady married her husband in spite of the fact that “he can’t dance.” Smith noted “there’s nothing in the Constitution” that mandates the President must be light on his feet.

In addition to remarks at the balls delivered by the new president and vice president, viewers saw the first couple dancing and mixing with the crowd. And a C-SPAN reporter, Robb Harleston, moved from ball to ball with the Obamas, and in the best tradition of C-SPAN interviews a wide mix of ball guests, from legislators to relatively normal citizens like Carol Harwell, who worked with Obama at the beginning of his political career in Chicago. Props to Harleston for his interview of Harwell, who provided personal insights into the new chief executive (he’s a serious man who likely will be in the Oval Office first thing tomorrow, she said).  Harleston also interviewed members of the press who were at the balls, including Monica Hesse, a reporter for The Washington Post, who told us the spread at the Neighborhood Ball was little more than “wedding food…pasta bars and small sandwiches.”

[Ed Note: A cursory check of the C-SPAN video archive indicates this was the first time the phrase “pasta bars” has been used in the 30 year-old network’s history.]

As Effros wrote at the start of his column, it’s not what you do, but how you do it. This night, with a simple studio set, remotes and especially strong talent, C-SPAN did things right.

The Daily



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