U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, whatever his other gifts may be, has clearly never been a reporter.
That might sound obvious, like noting that Bill Gates has never been an NFL linebacker. But it may explain a curious decision of Ryan’s on Wednesday.
For those who missed the drama, several Democratic members of Congress staged a sit-in Wednesday, literally sitting on the House floor until a gun control bill would be heard. This would be shown to the nation via C-SPAN, an all-Congress, all-the-time cable network that normally draws a lower viewership than competitive crochet.
And then Ryan gave the protesters a gift of inestimable value. He ordered the House cameras turned off.
Now, since the cameras belonged to the House and not to C-SPAN, Ryan had the right to do this. No question. But that’s not the same as saying it was a smart thing to do, since:
1) Several of the protesters carried these amazing devices called smart phones and could stream live video for C-SPAN to rebroadcast.
2) Nothing attracts a reporter’s attention – or an audience’s – like a closed door.
It’s sometimes called the Streisand Effect, after a long-ago attempt by the singer to remove a picture of her home from an online collection of 12,000 pictures of the California coastline. Before Streisand’s efforts, six people had viewed the photo online. In the month afterward, that soared to over 420,000.
People want what they’re told they can’t have. Especially when someone powerful or famous says so.
It works on a smaller level, too. Years ago, I was covering the efforts of Emporia, Kan. to hire a new city manager. This was of moderate interest to the community since the incumbent was one of those long-timers who had been around since “Crocodile Dundee” was the biggest thing to hit movie theatres.
And then moderate interest became burning interest. The Emporia City Council went back on an earlier decision and decided it wasn’t going to announce the finalists for the position.
The result was a flood of emails and online comments, a front-page story and a very rapid surrender by the council. The decision to close the doors had become a bigger story than any announcement of the finalists could ever have been.
Most of us, whether reporters or consumers of the news, don’t have a lot of time in the day. There are a lot of things screaming for our attention, most of them claiming to be pants-on-fire urgent. So it’s normal that a lot of stories, sometimes even fairly large ones, will slip beneath the radar of the average reader or viewer.
But we’re also a stubborn bunch. We have been for a long time. And when someone talks down to us saying “You don’t need to see that, “it almost always prompts an immediate “Why not?” For a moment, we KNOW where to focus our attention – and our frustration.
I’m not saying that the gun-control bill was good, bad, or as ugly as Eli Wallach. I am saying that its proponents should send Paul Ryan a thank-you card. Whether they succeed or fail in their quest, they’ve gotten the attention they wanted, and then some.
Come to think of it, maybe the Speaker’s found a second career. I’m sure there are many other struggling broadcasts that could use his assistance in getting a larger audience.
“Live from the Pepsi Center … it’s the 2016-2017 Denver Nuggets season that Paul Ryan didn’t want YOU to see!!”
Let us know, Mr. Speaker, willya?