AOC, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, maiden speech, CSPAN

How AOC turned C-SPAN into a media hit

6 minutes to read
Column
Jan Blommaert
03/09/2019

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez - now more widely known under her acronym AOC - has quite consistently been an innovator in US political communication. The freshman Representative for New York's 14th district has, since her election campaign in 2017, risen to an unprecedented level of global political stardom. In the process, she also gave the Democrats a new popular dynamic and she was instrumental in shaping a new openly progressive political line for her party. She did this by exploiting fully the affordances of the hybrid media system, combining mass media and social media in sophisticated and innovative ways. Remarkably, even C-SPAN has become part of her media toolkit.

C-SPAN, the odd one out

C-SPAN is shorthand for the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network, a nonprofit organization offering, since 1979, round-the-clock coverage of political life in Washington, DC: congressional sessions, hearings, interviews, press conferences, speeches. Its major feature is that such broadcasts proceed without any editorial commentary: C-SPAN provides primary sources, so to speak, in an attempt to bring politics closer to the American people.

It has done so with - how shall we say? - moderate success. As the name of the company suggests, C-SPAN was born in the era of cable television and reached, in 1979, 3,5 million American households. It gradually branched out towards radio broadcasts and, eventually, towards online and social media as well. But its 2017 audience profile report shows that 9,5 million people regularly access C-SPAN contents on a weekly basis. Its Twitter account currently has about 2 million followers - a third of what NBC News gets. Just to add some perspective, the popular talk show host Trevor Noah's Twitter account counts 10 million followers, and Donald Trump's over 60 million. 

C-SPAN's lackluster 'talking heads' broadcasts of unspectacular congressional proceedings lack almost all of the sensational and entertaining features needed to attract large TV audiences.

For a news medium operating nationwide, C-SPAN's figures are somewhat depressing. And in fact, C-SPAN is rather widely perceived as dull TV in the US and regularly being made fun of because of it. Its rather dated and lackluster 'talking heads' broadcasts of very unspectacular congressional proceedings, indeed, lack almost all of the sensational and entertaining features needed to attract large TV audiences. And its insistence on presenting these proceedings without any commentary or framing clashes with the search for endless recyclings of political raw material in debating programs and talkshows. C-SPAN is the odd one out in the US politican news arena.

Or, at least, it was. Until AOC walked in.

AOC and the hearing format

As said, C-SPAN records, in principle, everything that happens publicly on Capitol Hill. So when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made her maiden speech in the House in January 2018, that speech was broadcasted. One can only imagine the astonishment of experienced C-SPAN operatives when they saw what happened next. Within a day, the speech, about three minutes long, had been viewed more than two million times on Twitter and accumulated 13000 retweets, smashing all C-SPAN records. 

Let's pause here and consider some aspects of format. A three-minute visual clip is ideal material in today's media economy. Length is an issue generally - viewers as well as readers clearly disprefer long media items, which is why long political speeches are usually chopped up into smaller pieces - soundbites - that can be published and debated as self-standing items. The fact that we're dealing with a visual media artefact is, of course, an added bonus: there is something to be seen, not just to be heard, in AOC's maiden speech. And a few minutes is just about long enough not to exhaust our short attention spans.

And this was only the beginning. The next step was AOC actually developing a new media format.

A lot of what Representatives do is conducting hearings. Hearings are usually quite technical, as Representatives must try to expertly question the information provided by those who are heard, to rebuff them or to offer endorsements for what they say. In addition, hearings are highly rule-governed and involve elaborate discursive work tied to strict timing and decorum. So as communicative events, congressional hearings can hardly be called sexy.  Now take a look at this example.

 

Ocasio-Cortez uses her five minutes allocated under House speaking rules to construct a kind of quiz in which she carefully, and with some verbal fireworks, accumulates the questions and answers,  leading towards a case against the influence of big money on Capitol Hill and, eventually, in the White House. The ludic interrogation, we can see from AOC's performance, is meticulously scripted and prepared - a crystal clear line of argumentative build-up is being followed, the transparency of the argument emerges step by step, and the sequence ends in a climax.

If these five minutes are filled with a very well scripted and executed performance, with some resonances of popular-cultural tropes, an appealing hybrid media format is born.

On YouTube, this superbly staged piece of televised argumentation got over two million views. Other congressional hearing interventions by AOC likewise became extraordinarily widely viewed and circulated. All of them are about five minutes long and involve the same script: an extraordinarily well-prepared Representative asking incisive questions, taking her interlocutor to the point where she wants to take him/her, and concluding with a remark of general significance or with a cliffhanger anticipating lines of further inquiry.

What we see here is the construction of a media format by AOC, and C-SPAN does most of the work for her. The hearing footage can be easily cut into segments - the five minutes allocated to the Representative - and turned into a self-standing clip, which is just right for circulation trough a variety of mainstream and social media channels. If these five minutes are filled with a very well scripted and executed performance, with some resonances of popular-cultural tropes such as those of the forensic cross-questioning shown in tons of crime and courtroom dramas, an appealing hybrid media format is born. And it is cheap, for C-SPAN has taken care of the high-quality recording and editing of the footage. For a politician who lacks corporate donors and relies on grassroots donations, this is the way to go.

From the soundbite to the argument

The truly interesting thing about this new format is that it surpasses the oneliner, the soundbite that became the standard currency of political public discourse since Ronald Reagan. In these five-minute clips, we actually get an argument rather than just an isolated and quotable statement, and we are invited to examine the logic of that argument. To be sure, the soundbite hasn't disappeared; but it has been complemented by something far more demanding and valuable - something that prompts not just a quick moral or emotive "yes!" or "no!", a "like" or "hate" response, but involves attention to reasoning, to making a point. 

In these five-minute clips, we actually get an argument rather than just an isolated and quotable statement, and we are invited to examine the logic of that argument.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez deploys an amazingly broad repertoire of genres in her public communication, using attractive images highlighting her femininity on Instagram, sharp and witty oneliners on Twitter, longer speeches at public rallies in front of mass audiences, interviews in TV news programs and talkshows - name it, she does it, and she does it well. To this repertoire, she has added a new genre - that of the C-SPAN hearing broadcast. All genres have their specific functions, and the hearing format is primarily educational: it should teach audiences to follow, dissect and evaluate an argument - that is, a specific knowledge procedure in which bits of evidence are accumulated and lead to a point, the validity of which depends on the accumulated evidence.

C-SPAN has over the past four decades gathered tremendous quantities of such evidence and offered it to - mostly - a relatively small niche audience of politically interested citizens, with time to spend watching not-so-entertaining programs. AOC has created a format that takes this evidence - very valuable in itself but of little consequence if it remains unseen - to new audiences in a new shape. It's yet another demonstration of AOC's advanced understanding of contemporary media culture and of her exceptional talent for using all the resources this culture has to offer. Even if such resources, like those produced by C-SPAN, seem unlikely candidates for becoming contemporary media hits.