The cameras were focused squarely on Sam Alito this week. But if he's confirmed as Supreme Court Justice, the hearings will have been TV viewers' last chance to see him in action. Unless, of course, the current rules are changed to allow video cameras in the Supreme Court. C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb tells Brooke why he's been campaigning for that change for almost 20 years.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: During the Alito hearings, Republican senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania raised an issue that was dear to his heart - cameras in the courtroom, even the Supreme courtroom. He's for them.
ARLEN SPECTER: Will the court allow TV?
SAMUEL ALITO: The issue is a little bit different in the Supreme Court, and [LAUGHTER] it would be presumptuous for me to talk about it right now, particularly since I think at least one of the Justices has said that a television camera would make its way into the Supreme Court courtroom over his dead body, so I wouldn't want to comment [SOUND CUTS OFF]
ARLEN SPECTER: Well, let me ask you this, Judge Alito. Can you keep an open mind?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Brian Lamb is founder and CEO of the Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network, better known as C-SPAN. He's lobbied for nearly two decades on behalf of cameras in all appellate courts, including the Supreme Court, and he says they would perform an important educational function.
BRIAN LAMB: This is the one branch of government that no one sees. The only time you see a member of the court is when they allow our cameras to cover them or when they're testifying in their confirmation hearings - or one other time, and that's when they have to go to the Congress for their appropriations process. And so, I mean, our whole point has been all along that the American people - I don't know that you'd say have a right, but I do think they have a right - to see the oral argument portion of the court only.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you remember what Rehnquist's response was or what the response of anybody you petitioned back in those days was?
BRIAN LAMB: Usually the response from the Court is, "Thank you for your letter."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] And that was it?
BRIAN LAMB: Yeah. Really, they don't have any requirement to talk to us about this, and you don't often get the opportunity to interview someone from the court. I've done it four times with Chief Justice Rehnquist. But it's not something that I like to push because of my perch at C-SPAN.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, it was Justice Antonin Scalia, among others, who has suggested that cameras in the courtroom would have a kind of sensationalizing effect.
BRIAN LAMB: I can understand why any member of the court would think that it might sensationalize the proceedings, but keep in mind a number of things here. First of all, the Chief Justice has the control of the court, and any time anybody's getting off mark, all he has to do is tell them to get back on mark. There's no jury in the room, and a lot of people think there is. The arguments themselves are only an hour long, with a half hour usually to each side. It's not that big a deal to put unobtrusive television cameras in the room with a little bit of increase in the light level, but not much, and let the public see what is often not very exciting, and it won't become exciting if you're talking about a land case just because there are television in the courts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I'm entirely persuaded that television wouldn't change the proceedings in the Supreme Court in any significant way. However, in the 25 years or so that C-SPAN has been airing live footage of Congress, there have been definite changes in deference to the presence of those cameras, wouldn't you say?
BRIAN LAMB: Well, I've tried not to answer that question directly, because everybody gets nervous when somebody like me says that we've had an impact on the process. I think, though, you just have to look at the obvious thing about television. Any time a television camera comes into a room, it changes something. If nothing else, somebody somewhere in America is watching every speech from the floor of the House of Representatives, and I don't know about you, but I remember times when I was sitting up in the gallery and there wasn't anybody in there and no one was paying attention in the chamber to who was speaking, let alone somebody outside the chambers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's right. Famously, Newt Gingrich and many others in the period of the new Republican revolution used that empty House of Representatives to preach to the nation through C-SPAN, and certainly the Republicans have not, by a long shot, been the only ones to do it. The line of communication through that camera in the congressional chambers is much closer for anybody who likes to consume that stuff wall-to-wall, and it's always surprised me how many people actually do like to consume it just that way.
BRIAN LAMB: You know, the one thing to keep in mind about television in Washington or around politicians is that they always make these decisions behind closed doors anyway. We won't have our cameras back in those private meetings. And if you really look at how decisions are made, they're made through briefs, which you can read. They're made somewhat through the oral argument, but they're then made in conference and among clerks. And so you can overdo the significance of a possible change from cameras because a lot of this stuff is wired long before it ever becomes public debate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, just because a lot of the stuff is canned isn't as significant as the fact that all these canned stuff is now distributed so widely and the Congresspeople on the floor perceive a whole new audience for their speechifying.
BRIAN LAMB: But it's a very important educational function. The American people have never known much about their Congress. Now with the Internet and what we do and what you do and what everybody else does, you can sit far away from Washington and stay in pretty good touch with the mood and the substance of what's happening.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, after John Roberts was confirmed as Chief Justice, you sent him a letter that was similar to the one that you sent Rehnquist so long ago. Any response yet?
BRIAN LAMB: He responded within three days, which kind of surprised [CHUCKLES] me, because I wrote it to him on the Monday, the third of October, first day of the Court, and I had an answer by the sixth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: "Thank you for your letter?"
BRIAN LAMB: Basically.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: "We'll get back to you?"
BRIAN LAMB: I don't even think he said, "We'll get back to you."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
BRIAN LAMB: I think he said, "Thanks." [LAUGHTER] No, they don't go very far. I actually thought years ago, and I predicted 20 years ago, that we would be in the Supreme Court in five years, and you can see how good I am at it. Frankly, my opinion, the Court won't go on television until either there's public pressure or somebody inside the court, like the Chief Justice, is convinced it's the thing to do. The Congress can pass a law, but nobody really knows whether or not it's constitutional. And guess who would have to make that decision? [LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Brian, thank you so much.
BRIAN LAMB: Nice to be with you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Brian Lamb is founder and CEO of C-SPAN. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, predictions of a Web disaster to equal 9/11 and misreporting leads to bad science and financial fudging.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media from NPR. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] END SEGMENT A STATION BREAK ONE (MUSIC)