House Democrats turned to a tactic from the 1960s and technology from 2016 to get their message out on amid a rancorous partisan battle over bringing gun control bills to a vote in the House.
Democratic leaders began their effort on the floor of the House on Wednesday at about 11:25 a.m. ET in order to force a debate on two gun control bills initiated in the wake of the tragic June 12 shootings in Orlando, Fla., that left 50 dead including the gunman.
The sight of Rep. John Lewis, a legendary activist in the civil rights movement, and Democratic leaders sitting in the well of the House made for eye-catching coverage on C-SPAN. When House Speaker Paul Ryan ordered the TV cameras that supply the feed to C-SPAN shut off because the House was formally not in session, Democrats turned on their phones and laptops to offer live streaming coverage of hours and hours of speeches from members on the gun control bills.
C-SPAN quickly picked up those live feeds and labeled its footage “Live Facebook Video Provided by Rep. Beto O’Rourke” and other members. The picture has at times been blurry and often shaky, but it nonetheless has been a dramatic showcase of the ease of the live streaming functions offered by Facebook and Twitter.
C-SPAN was quick to instruct its viewers that it has no control over the cameras and audio system that allows it to cover the activity in the House chamber. All of that equipment is under the control of the House Speaker Paul Ryan, who sent the House into recess after the sit-in began. At that time, he ordered the cameras and audio turned off, saying that the Democrats were violating House rules with the sit-in and by using recording devices on the floor.
Later on Wednesday, Ryan called the Democrats’ move a “publicity stunt” in an interview with CNN, an assertion that was much commented on during the many hours of speechifying. Of course, the sit-in came with its a ready-made chant and hashtag, “#NoBillNoBreak,” as Democrats sought to delay the House’s break for the July 4th holiday until the bills came up for a vote.
Howard Mortman, communications director for C-SPAN, said the network has incorporated Facebook Live and Periscope footage into its coverage in the past, particularly for campaign-related events, but never as extensively has it has in the past 24 hours.
C-SPAN producers became aware of the alternate video source for the sit-in through their usual monitoring of social media. The net’s engineers are continually surfing around for the best quality video to pull up on air, as the picture and audio quality from disparate sources can be unpredictable, Mortman said. But the unusual nature of the sit-in makes it important to bring the video to viewers, Mortman said.
“We’ll be showing this as long as it lasts,” Mortman said. “C-SPAN job is to cover Congress, and this rises to the level of a big story.”
The footage shown through the night include chaotic scenes of Ryan struggling to hold a vote on bills unrelated to gun control. House Democrats shouted “Shame!” and sang protest songs including “We Shall Overcome.” At 3 a.m., Ryan convened a vote on funding to help battle the Zika virus, which passed, after which Ryan adjourned the House until July 5.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) were among the Democratic stars who joined in the effort. Warren brought doughnuts early Thursday for the few dozen members who spent the night in the chamber.
Facebook and Twitter are no doubt pleased to be playing a central role in this stage of the news cycle. Facebook has made live-streaming video a top priority, and the social giant has reportedly signed contracts to pay more than $50 million to media partners and celebs including CNN and the New York Times to use Facebook Live. Twitter, which bought Periscope last year prior to its launch, says users watch some 110 years’ worth of live video every day.
“Facebook gives more people a voice in the political and legislative processes – and members of Congress broadcasting activity from the House floor using Facebook Live has made it easy for Americans to engage in the debate and make their opinion known,” a company rep said.
According to Facebook data, the combined viewership for O’Rourke’s live streams alone had reached nearly 1.5 million as of Thursday morning.
Among the speakers early Thursday morning was Rep. Elizabeth Esty of Connecticut, who read the names and ages of the 28 victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012. Other members spoke of their experiences with violence and the complexities of gun ownership.
“We cannot accept little children getting slaughtered,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland. “Three hundred people in my city every year (are) gunned down. That will not be our new normal. We will not have that.”
(Pictured: Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland speaks early Thursday morning)
Todd Spangler contributed to this report.