What If We Built a C-SPAN on Steroids?

Newspapers are collapsing, statehouse coverage is on the wane and lobbyists are quietly filling the gap. Here’s a solution.

In her recently released book, Dark Money, Jane Mayer painstakingly traces the startlingly successful efforts by Charles and David Koch and their conservative allies to use their billions to shape American policies. Mayer’s work pays special attention to state-level politics, and for good reason: For years, groups like ALEC, the State Policy Network, and (more recently) the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity have been focused on nullifying any progressive national policymaking through state legislation.

These groups look like they’re conduits for bottom-up, grassroots expressions of discontent with the role of government in American lives, but according to Mayer their money comes “from giant, multinational corporations, including Koch Industries, the Reynolds American and Altria tobacco companies, Microsoft, Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, GlaxoSmithKline, and Kraft Foods” — and the draft bills, “news” stories, and opinion papers generated by these groups are aimed squarely at promoting state policies that will bolster the bottom lines of those companies.

Whether or not you agree with the overall policy goals of the Koch brothers, we have a democracy problem: At the same time that state legislative activity has gained in importance, the number of traditional news reporters covering statehouses has plummeted. According to numbers from the American Journalism Review and the Pew Research Center, less than a third of U.S. newspapers have a reporter present at the statehouse (either full- or part-time) and almost no local television stations assign a reporter to state politics.

Net result: the public’s awareness of and access to the activities of state government is vanishing, at the same time that the decisions made by state-level actors are having greater effects on American lives.

The first step towards righting this asymmetry is access, and there’s a good idea out there you need to know about: State Civic Networks are state-based, non-profit, independent, nonpartisan, “citizen engagement” online centers, and they should exist in every state. (Think C-SPAN, but way better, and focusing on statehouses.)

The plan is to make every legislative session, every committee meeting, every public hearing, every oral argument in court, executive branch public meetings and hearings, press conferences, and non-governmental public policy events around the state available live (and archived for later on-demand viewing). These multiple media streams would be accurate and balanced, professionally-produced, and stem from multi-camera coverage not subject to any government interference.

The resulting permanent, searchable online libraries, which would also contain all the public documents that related to any covered event, would be accessible through a great user interface — making the job of understanding easier for citizens, legislators, scholars, and journalists alike.

Connecticut is poised to be the first mover on this plan, with legislation being readied for introduction in the next few weeks. (Several states, including Connecticut, already have state-level public affairs networks; the big idea behind the State Civic Network is to ensure these networks’ independence, allow them to provide more robust resources, and make it clear that they are entitled to be seen by the public.)

What’s the funding model for this state-level civic enterprise? Well, Congress already thought about that when it gave local authorities the power to require cable companies to support “public, educational, and governmental” programming as a condition of getting a franchise.

Back in 1991, when the Senate was considering the Cable Act, the Senate report accompanying the bill said that the statute “allows for a local ‘mini C-SPAN,’ thus contributing to an informed electorate, essential to the proper functioning of government.” (C-SPAN had been created in 1979 by the cable industry as a public service. They probably now wish it would go away.)

The ideal funding solution would be to accompany all high-speed Internet access subscriptions with a tiny sliver pass-through assessment (pennies a month) that could be devoted to supporting these kinds of civic networks.

Short of that, the Cable Act clearly gives state authorities the power to require America’s cable companies to both pass through subscriber funding and provide State Civic Networks with channel capacity — and the team looking at this in Connecticut estimates that it would cost only about $.40 per month per subscriber to fund such a statewide function (including equipment, infrastructure, and operations).

Nothing, really, particularly given that cable customers routinely pay $100-$150/month for bundled services (about 40% of which is pure profit for Comcast and its brethren).

Whatever the vanishingly minimal burden carrying a State Civic Network would cause the cable operators is, the Senate long ago declared it is appropriate in order to “ensure that the public interest, convenience and necessity is served, while allowing the cable industry an opportunity to develop to its maximum potential.”

Predictably, Comcast, Cablevision, and the cable trade association are loaded for bear on this one. They’ll bring in an army of lobbyists to stop this from happening. Even though they’ve benefited hugely from access to public rights-of-way and revel in de facto exclusive public franchises that give them unlimited pricing power, they’re undoubtedly feeling outraged that anyone is even contemplating burdening their private operations with public obligations.

But if we think about what’s important, seeing through a nonpartisan lens what’s going on in the nation’s statehouses makes the list. We’re now in the dark, and we shouldn’t be.

Illustration by Backchannel.