Historic trial a snoozer for TV viewing audience

Strict Senate rules prohibit cameras from straying beyond podium

Trial In The Senate

January 16, 1999|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Those tuning in to the impeachment trial this week may find themselves wondering: Is Sen. Jesse Helms dozing off? Is Sen. Edward M. Kennedy throwing an intimidating glare at the House managers? Are other senators nodding in agreement? Fidgeting? Yawning? Sneezing? Rolling their eyes incredulously?

Who knows? Certainly not the average American sitting in the TV room.

Senate rules prevent television cameras from showing much more than a static shot of the speaker's podium, where prosecutor after prosecutor has spoken at length about why Bill Clinton should no longer be president. No images of the senators reacting. Rarely a peek at Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist or Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. And for millions of viewers, this latest trial-of-the-century -- a somber, historic, emotional, much-hyped event -- has been a still-framed snoozer.

The viewers want more. The network producers would love to give it to them. And the frustration of familiarity is getting painful for everybody.

"It just makes you ache not being able to show the scene," said Kim Hume, Washington bureau chief for Fox News. "But we're so used to dealing with the Senate and its restrictions that we accept and assume what it's going to be."

The key restriction is a Senate rule that bars cameras in the chamber from showing anyone except the person speaking.

And because the trial has been dominated by the House managers' presentation of their case, the images have been fairly monotonous: the speaker in front of a dark marbled wall, an occasional shot of Rehnquist making a comment, the marbled wall, Lott calling for a recess, more wall.

If, and only if, the manager speaking is short enough, viewers may also be treated to a glimpse of someone's glass of water.

"The cameras are installed to inform the public about what is happening, and what is happening is what the speaker is saying," said Tamara Somerville, staff director for the Senate Rules Committee. "The public's interest is best served by this. Otherwise, you're going to have cameras showing whatever. That's fine for the World Series.

"In the U.S. Senate, we'd like some more direction."

The networks say that if they were allowed to bring in cameras, they would choose more illuminating sights: close-ups of individual members as they digest the arguments, wide-angle views hinting at the mood in the chamber and, they say, a lot more context.

"People are wondering why they're not seeing how their senators are reacting," said Rich Fahle, a spokesman for C-SPAN, which began to receive calls yesterday morning from viewers unimpressed by the coverage.

"It doesn't make for dramatic television," Fahle said. "It doesn't measure up to `ER.' "

The channels doing live gavel-to-gavel coverage of the trial -- Cable News Network, C-SPAN2, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, Court TV and some Public Broadcasting Service affiliates -- aren't allowed to have their cameras positioned in the chamber. Rather, they receive a feed from cameras staffed and maintained by Senate personnel.

Efforts by viewers to flip to another network in hopes of a better angle are therefore fruitless. It's all the same.

Those watching coverage on PBS have been warned by host Jim Lehrer not to expect much drama.

"We've not even seen the chief justice in two hours, except at the beginning and at the end when he called on Senator Lott," Lehrer said during one break. "This is something we all need to get used to. This is not your traditional television event."

The networks have lobbied for change, to no avail. The rule governing what TV cameras can focus on is laid out in a Standing Senate Order. Amending it would require a vote of the full Senate. That is unlikely, given that the members are preoccupied, Senate staff said.

Also, Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who is chairman of the Rules Committee, and the committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, support the restrictions on television coverage.

On the House side, the rules governing television coverage are similar. But they were changed, briefly, in 1995.

Under pressure from the networks to offer viewers more compelling coverage, a task force, chaired by Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the Michigan Republican, was set up to study the issue. The task force recommended making the rules more flexible, and for a month there was footage of members seated in the chamber.

According to Jon Brandt, Hoekstra's press secretary, the experiment ended, and the restrictions on cameras were restored, after about four weeks.

"Members and staff complained that they were being shown in an embarrassing light," Brandt said. "And the people who were speaking complained and said, `I'm up here talking -- the camera should be on me.' "

Fahle, the C-SPAN spokesman, said that if his network were permitted to bring in its camera crews, they would be restrained, careful not to catch senators in embarrassing situations.

Hume, of Fox News, made no such promise. She said that if the networks caught a senator snoozing, some would be sure to air it.

"It's irresistible," she said.

Pub Date: 1/16/99

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