| Home | Interview with Steve Scully, C-SPAN -- December 2004
September 18, 2014

Steve Scully, 44, is senior executive producer and political editor for C-SPAN. He also hosts 'Washington Journal,' a daily three-hour public affairs program. Since 1990, Scully has been responsible for planning and editing C-SPAN's campaign programming, including presidential and congressional elections. Prior to joining C-SPAN, Scully covered politics and local government as a reporter with WSEE-TV in Erie, PA. He also worked as a reporter and anchor at WHEC-TV in Rochester, N.Y. In January 2003, he assumed the Amos P. Hostetter Chair at the University of Denver, teaching a course on media, politics, and public policy issues via cable fiber line between Washington, D.C., and Denver. Scully earned a bachelor's degree in communication and political science from American University, and a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University. He spoke with about C-SPAN's mission.
Jody Brannon What made you join C-SPAN instead of one of the regular networks?

Steve Scully: I have a lot more flexibility in influencing the process than just being one of many at a network where they try to digest 22 minutes of the evening news. Here we have the ability to go many hours to cover an event, interview newsmakers, follow the political process, or show individuals on the campaign trail. I enjoy the freedom that it gives me and the editorial satisfaction of being able to do it with much more of a free hand. It was an easy decision to come here and an easier decision to stay here. You go to work each day and you're able to produce results and see those results on the air almost every day. How would you classify C-SPAN as a journalistic entity?

Steve Scully: I think C-SPAN is one of the truest forms of journalism. I say that for a couple of reasons. First, we don't take advertising dollars. We are not influenced in any way by ratings. We get all of our money from the cable industry, which is about 6 1/2 cents per month per cable subscriber. We're able to meet every afternoon without any pressure that you have to cover this event because you're going to get more people to watch. No one from our company -- from Brian Lamb on down -- has ever said, "You must cover this event." The editorial group -- which meets every day at 3:15, Monday through Friday, and then rotates with different members so that you have a variety of points of view every week -- looks at the events. We keep careful track of who we cover, how much we cover, and what issues we cover. We're able to make strong decisions on what has editorial merit, not what's going to draw more attention. You obviously want to have programming that's going to be interesting. An example of that would be the Merck hearings on Vioxx. That's a great consumer issue. It's also an important public policy issue... We have enough staff where we are not feeling the pressure. Now there are many days where we'll have five or six two-camera crews, and we wish we had 10. What are C-SPAN's strengths and weaknesses?

Steve Scully: Our biggest strength is nobody does what we do. We're the only network that has the luxury to put on long-form programming -- both during the day and in the evening. Our biggest drawback is a lot of people don't know what's on the air at any given time. It's very hard to program at an events-driven network when you're beholden to the events you're covering. If events are running late -- you're waiting for the rooms to fill up or waiting for the guest speaker -- we have to always make sure we are keeping the audience informed of what's happening... We're trying to do appointment viewing programming, especially on the weekends, so we can say [to viewers] if you want these types of events you can count on them Sunday night at 8. The internet has helped. We're able to send out e-mails every day letting our audience know what's going to be on the three [C-SPAN] networks. How does C-SPAN go about deciding which events to cover?

Steve Scully: There are a couple of things that are a given. For example, in January if there's a Supreme Court retirement, the confirmation hearings will be a given. The confirmation hearings for every Cabinet secretary -- those are the must-get. The challenge is when you have those hearings that you need to get and there are other things that you want to get. The struggle is making sure you have the time and resources to get what you need to get and then some of those things that you want to get. You make the decision based on the resources you have. We go into the meeting at 3:15 and we know we have 5 to 8 two-camera crews that are able to cover so many events. And if there are three confirmation hearings and three or four really good hearings that day, something's got to give. So you look at a number of things. Is the same issue going to be heard in the House? If so, we'll look at getting it later in the week. You can't duplicate a confirmation hearing for Condi Rice or somebody like that. The period that we are in this week (Nov. 29 to Dec. 5) is a little bit different because Congress is out. There aren't as many things that are must-gets. So we have more flexibility to be creative. We sent Brian Lamb to New York to interview Brian Williams and Roger Ailes for our Q&A program. You look to schedule those events when you're not going to be quite so busy and you have the time and resources to break away and do things a little different. Has the quality of broadcast journalism decreased over the past five years?

Steve Scully: It's changed. When I grew up, you used to have a lot of documentaries that appeared on the broadcast networks. They don't do that anymore. They do reality television. PBS has picked up a lot of the slack; they do a terrific job in doing documentaries. You have the History Channel, which I think is one of the best news documentary-type programs out there. That quality of broadcast journalism -- and it is a form of journalism -- is very good. I think what has gone downhill is when cable networks get caught in all the titillating news of the day when they should be focusing more on the things that are important to people, like following the money and the state of the nation. Having said that, if you're sick and tired of watching Laci Peterson on the Fox News Channel, then you can come on to C-SPAN and understand the process that we do in following it. It's changed, but it's changed because there are so many choices out there filling the void that is apparent because broadcast networks don't do it anymore. It seems more journalists are becoming a part of the news instead of observers of it. Is that a result of reporting becoming more partisan?

Steve Scully: I think it's networks realizing they can make money off the 'Today' show and 'Good Morning America.' News began in the 1960s as a public service. Now it's a cash-cow. When you have people like Katie Couric making $65 million over the course of her contract -- there's nothing wrong with it; it's what the market will bear -- but I think it's changed the dynamics of the whole operation that the networks now have. They're out to make money. The evening news programs are a business. The morning shows are a business. The newsmagazine shows are a business. Once it became a business, who's anchoring and who's drawing in the viewers became more apparent and more important, and the networks realize that. They're going to pay a premium to make sure they get the people who are going to draw the greatest audience. Having said that, you still have to have the skills to do that. I think Tim Russert -- who is paid a lot of money to do what he does -- earns his money because he works hard and he understands the process. He's probably one of the best interviewers out there. Are journalists showing their colors more when they're just supposed to be neutral observers?

Steve Scully: We are seeing more opinionated journalism on Fox, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, the whole incident with Dan Rather. Because they've become celebrities and because they make so much money and are in our homes, that's the evolution of where we are today in the media environment. They're on par with people we see in the movies and sitcom actors and people we see on television. So, they're going to become part of the story because they're well-known individuals. People know Tom Brokaw. They've been following his career. It's not in the days of the early 1960s when you had kind of faceless [anchors]. Katie Couric is on the cover of National Enquirer because she's in people's homes every morning at 7. That's where we are in society. Whether that's a change in the news or just a change in the media environment, I would say more in the latter. What will be the long-term impact on the credibility of journalists if the public's perceived bias in reporting goes unchecked?

Steve Scully: Journalism in general will face more credibility blows. The most important thing you have is your reputation. How people view you and the organization you work at -- they're going to see things through the prism of that. It would be a shame if we go down the path where everyone looks at The Washington Post and the New York Times and dismisses them as being supportive or critical of Republicans. I think news organizations have to be careful of that. But we do live in a 24/7 environment where bloggers and people who have access to tools that they didn't have 10 years ago are going to try to implode the process. The best thing any news organization can do is to try to maintain a level of credibility -- make sure that the facts they put in the newspaper or on the air are accurate and verified. That's one of the lessons CBS has realized. You could see the mistakes they were making every step of the way. They are going to pay a price for that. If you want to make sure people pay attention to what you say, you have to make sure that you go out of your way to be truly fair and balanced, and not just to say it as a slogan for a cable network, a newspaper or whatever... We're aware of it here. If we don't cover all sides of an issue, our audience is going to say, "Hey, wait a minute C-SPAN. You're only covering the Democratic point of view, or the Republican point of view." Do the press need to do a better job labeling commentary and news?

Steve Scully: Yes, they do. They need to say, "This is analysis." If you have a comment by a news anchor that is truly his opinion -- and I personally don't like that -- you need to make sure it is clearly marked and identified. Having a John Chancellor commentary at the end of the newscast -- which was still popular in the '70s -- blurs the line. You once considered becoming a lawyer. Any regrets on choosing journalism over law?

Steve Scully: No. Journalism is the best profession for my mentality because I love to have my finger in a lot of different issues.

Copyright © 2004 All rights reserved.

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