C-SPAN often teeters on the brink of self-parody, particularly when the hosts of its interview programs stare impassively at the camera while yet another crazed caller recites chapter and verse of the latest conspiracy theories involving the Trilateral Commission 9/11 being an “inside job” or the Bush family’s Nazi/Saudi/Zionist/ KGB/CIA ties (choose one or more and don’t think twice about any seeming contradictions).
Formed in 1979 as, in the words of its mission statement, “a private, non-profit company … by the cable television industry as a public service … to provide public access to the political process,” C-SPAN is deadly serious about maintaining a reputation for non-partisanship – to the point even of allowing viewers to disseminate, unchallenged, all manner of unsubstantiated charges and outright lies.
The ideal of non-partisanship, admirable when it comes to covering Congress and political conventions, can become something else entirely when used to provide respectability to lunatic-fringe callers who spew hate, ignorance or misinformation.
Earlier this month, former CIA analyst and habitual Israel-basher Michael Scheuer was being interviewed by C-Span’s Bill Scanlan on the morning show “Washington Journal” when a viewer identifying himself as “John from Franklin” called in. Here’s the exchange that followed:
John from Franklin: I for one am sick and tired of all these Jews coming on C-SPAN and other stations and pushing us to go to war against our Muslim friends. They’re willing to spend the last drop of American blood and treasure to get their way in the world. They have way too much power in this country. People like Wolfowitz and Feith and the other neo-cons – that jewed us into Iraq – and now we’re going to spend the next 60 years rehabilitating our soldiers – I’m sick and tired of it.
C-SPAN host Bill Scanlan: John in Franklin, New York. Any comment on that?
Scheuer: Yeah. I think that American foreign policy is ultimately up to the American people. One of the big things we have not been able to discuss for the past 30 years is the Israelis. Whether we want to be involved in fighting Israel’s wars in the future is something that Americans should be able to talk about. They may vote yes. They may want to see their kids killed in Iraq or Yemen or somewhere else to defend Israel. But the question is: we need to talk about it. Ultimately Israel is a country that is of no particular worth to the United States.
As journalist Jeffrey Goldberg put it on his Atlantic blog:
“Any comment?” This is what a C-Span host says in reaction to a grotesquely anti-Semitic question? Any comment. Words fail…. I’m calling Scanlan this morning to try to figure out what he was thinking.
Scanlan chose not to respond to Goldberg, but controversy over the incident continued to build on the Internet and finally, a week after the program aired, C-Span acknowledged that Scanlan should not have sat silently by as John from Franklin made his remarks.
“Program hosts, whose role is to facilitate the dialogue between callers and guests, are certainly permitted to step in when a caller makes ad hominem attacks or uses obscenity or obviously racist language,” C-Span said in a statement to the Jewish Telegraphic agency. “Given that this involves quick judgment during a live television production, it’s an imperfect process that didn’t work as well as it should have that day.”
Sounds good, but here’s the problem: While C-Span can try to spin this particular incident as an unfortunate and rare oversight, its “imperfect process” doesn’t seem to “work as well as it should” on many days.
In fact, the situation with C-Span has become so egregious that CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) has a regularly updated “C-Span Watch” on its website listing example after example of anti-Semitic and extreme anti-Zionist statements made by C-Span callers.
Describing “Washington Journal” on the “C-Span Watch” home page, Myron Kaplan writes: “In recent years, the program has become a platform for anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic callers who are rarely, if ever, interrupted or challenged by the program’s hosts…. Occasionally, guest speakers – journalists, authors, academics, government officials – offer information that counters these distortions and falsehoods. But C-Span hosts themselves almost invariably sit mute or even, at times, reinforce the bigoted rants…. No other ethnic or religious group has been subjected to such continuous and virulent defamation on the network.”