One of the things made clear in the recent days of the Covid-19 outbreak has been the thirst for information, much of it as direct from the source as possible.
People who before might have clicked past TVW, the state’s public affairs network, are now tuning in directly to watch Gov. Jay Inslee’s press conferences and other coverage regarding the measures being taken to limit the spread of the disease.
Reporters were in the room at the same time as they collected quotes and information for reports appearing in newspapers and websites and on television and radio, but here — in real time — was the same information, direct and unfiltered. Those press conferences, like the rest of TVW’s coverage — including legislative floor debates and hearings, state agency board meetings, interviews, documentaries and other presentations — speak to the transparency that the state’s public affairs channel has fostered now for 25 years.
TVW went live for the first time on April 10, 1995, broadcasting oral arguments before the state Supreme Court regarding a death penalty appeal. That was national news because it was a death penalty case, but also because it was the first time cameras had been allowed in an appellate courtroom anywhere in the world.
In the 25 years since it went on the air, TVW’s commitment to accountability and transparency remain central to every broadcast. And it took a few years, despite support from the public and from newspaper editorial boards, to get agreement from state lawmakers to, first, allow cameras in their chambers, and then, turn them on.
TVW was founded by Denny Heck and Stan Marshburn, who in the late 1980s worked on the staff of Gov. Booth Gardner. After leaving those jobs, both worked to establish a public affairs network that was modeled after C-SPAN, which since 1979 has provided coverage of the U.S. House and Senate debate and hearings.
At first, TVW might have been modeled off C-SPAN a little too closely, admits Renee Radcliff Sinclair, TVW’s president and herself a former state lawmaker who was in the House at the time of its launch. The network’s name, she said, was to be WashPAN for Washington Public Affairs Network.
Now, doesn’t that sound like a chore?
The bigger chore, however, was in convincing state lawmakers to allow the cameras. Not so with the state Supreme Court, which is why it was TVW’s first broadcast. A short documentary about TVW’s history with the court tells how Justice Charles Z. Smith, who knew the opportunities because of his past commentary work on a Seattle TV station, quickly convinced the rest of the court to allow cameras, then lobbied Heck and Marshburn to record and broadcast its oral arguments. The request was a surprise, as the U.S. Supreme Court, about the same time, had emphatically rejected cameras in the courtroom.
The oral arguments before the court and those before the state pardons and clemency board remain among the most-watched broadcasts on TVW, Sinclair said in a recent interview with The Herald Editorial Board.
The House followed that same year, but it took until the next spring to convince Senate lawmakers to turn their cameras on. Heck, now in his final term in the U.S. House, explains in a TVW documentary about its history, the early reaction to a C-SPAN-like channel for the Legislature.
“Denny very humorously talks about walking into a legislator’s office and he would talk about C-SPAN and the transparency that C-SPAN brought to the legislative process at the federal level, and the lawmaker would say, ‘Oh, I love C-SPAN; I watch it all the time.’ And so Denny would say, ‘So, I can count on you to support this,’ and then they would say ‘No, of course not.’”
Many legislators were of the opinion that fellow lawmakers would either play to the cameras or would clam up, stifling the debate, Heck said.
Even a few years into TVW’s tenure, Sinclair said, after she had left the Legislature and joined TVW, she would talk to lawmakers who continued to resist the transparency the network provided.
“There were some members who readily admitted that they liked doing business in the dark,” she said.
But that reluctance among some lawmakers to show the making of political sausage testifies to the value of transparency.
“I thought there was tremendous power in having the people see our legislators struggling with our public policy issues,” Marshburn says in the documentary. “Because they do struggle with the process, but seeing that has got to make them more human. … Seeing that it is a struggle to get to a solution, that makes our society better, makes our daily lives better. That’s got to make everybody feel better about what they’re doing.”
TVW’s beginnings and its mission of government access and transparency go back another quarter century before its creation to the early-1970s when public demand for accountability helped create laws for open public meetings, public records access and campaign finance reports.
And in its 25 years, TVW has helped encourage those ideas of transparency and access among the public, rights that were exercised by the public in 2018 when phone calls, emails and messages flooded the governor’s office, successfully urging him to veto legislation that would have largely exempted state lawmakers from complying with provisions of the Public Records Act.
As with the presence of reporters in Olympia, when a TVW camera is on — and, unless it’s pointed at the ceiling, it’s on — it’s a reminder to lawmakers and public officials that the public is watching, and depending on them to act in its best interests.
Appreciation for TVW is fitting during Sunshine Week, a national recognition of the importance of government transparency and access. Now as the nation confronts a public health crisis, one whose epicenter is Washington state, the importance of TVW is especially certain.