Over the Hill

TV coverage of Congress is a lot of bunk

Special to The TribuneSeptember 12, 2013 

Phil Dirkx

I can’t help wondering if the current stalemates and deadlocks in Congress aren’t due to the TV coverage. The live TV coverage of all sessions and hearings of the House of Representatives started in 1979. Similar TV coverage in the Senate started in 1986.

I don’t suppose the deadlocking started right away. It probably took a few years for all the congressmen and congresswomen to start thinking like TV personalities.

Of course Congress always had long-winded speeches and wrangling. In fact in 1856 a southern representative actually brutally beat a northern senator with a cane on the floor of the Senate.

And a congressman’s long-winded speech in 1820 added the word “bunk” to the English language. His name was Felix Walker and his district included Buncombe County in North Carolina.

He made his famous speech at the end of a monthlong debate in the House of Representatives on the contentious question of whether to admit Missouri to the Union as a free or slave state. As the vote was about to be called, he rose and delivered a lengthy, empty speech.

Many members of the House walked out. He stopped his speech for a moment to say, “You’re not hurting my feelings, gentlemen. I am not speaking for your ears. I am only talking for Buncombe.”

“Talking for Buncombe,” meaning talking nonsense, became a saying among congressmen. It eventually entered our language as “bunkum” or “bunk.”

So today we shouldn’t be surprised to see members of Congress on TV who are really just “talking for Buncombe.” How could they resist?

And now that they’re on TV they must be better dressed, less relaxed and less casual than in the pre-TV days. Being stiff and camera-conscious doesn’t encourage deal making and compromise. They now feel called upon to appear tough and uncompromising.

I think Congress would probably get more done if the cameras were turned off. But I’m not recommending that because it will never happen. Congress members will always want to talk for Buncombe.

But I wonder how many people actually watch Congress on TV. Probably not many. And probably fewer watch the California Legislature on TV. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that more people watch the county supervisors on TV or listen to the radio broadcasts of city council meetings.

But the broadcasts I’d like to stop are the broadcasts of murder trials. I think the TV broadcasting of the trial of George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin hindered the search for justice, and the 1995 trial of O.J. Simpson was a fiasco.

Phil Dirkx has lived in Paso Robles for more than five decades, and his column is published weekly. Reach him at 238-2372 or phild2008@sbcglobal.net.

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