Steve Scully, C-SPAN senior executive producer, political editor and host of the morning call-in show Washington Journal, has covered presidential campaigns and conventions since 1988, when he was a young reporter for WHEC-TV in Rochester, N.Y. Two years later, Scully joined C-SPAN and has coordinated the cable channel’s campaign programming since 1991.
As the 2020 Democratic National Convention begins this evening, Scully tells us what he has learned from previous campaign coverage that he is taking into account as he continues to cover 2020. “Don’t believe the polls. Don’t succumb to conventional wisdom. Remain skeptical,” he told TVNewser late last week. “With all of the headlines we are dealing with, from coronavirus to the economy, this really is an unprecedented moment in American politics.”
And with the possibility of President Trump denying much-needed funding for the United States Postal Service just weeks before universal mail-in voting for the election begins, 2020 could become even more complicated.
Scully recalls covering the Bush-Gore recount and how lengthy that process was. This could be even more wild.
“The lesson is prepare for every scenario,” said Scully. “Expect election night to become election week, perhaps longer,” adding, “remember that what the campaign looks like today could, and likely will, be very different in two months.”
For this installment of the TVNewser Notebook, we asked Scully to bring us up to date on C-SPAN’s 2020 convention coverage plans. He told us an amusing coverage story from his years of covering conventions, and even disclosed his go-to restaurant and meal during election coverage.
This Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity purposes:
TVNewser: The 2020 Democratic National Convention begins today. Talk about the adjustments, if any, C-SPAN is having to make to its convention coverage now that both parties are going virtual.
Scully: What began as a large contingent of C-SPAN’s producers, hosts, technicians and marketing representatives, gradually dwindled. As C-SPAN co-founder Brian Lamb has often said, conventions are our “Super Bowl.” Clearly this pandemic forced us to change our ambitious plans for Milwaukee and Charlotte. Instead of the C-SPAN bus in each city, a skybox set inside the convention hall, coverage of delegate events and cameras situated around town, we will be originating our programming from C-SPAN’s Washington, D.C., studios. Like every other network, we have had to scale back significantly the size and scope of our coverage. Convention-related events by other media organizations have become Zoom or virtual events, and you’ll see many of those on the network as well. In addition, we intend to have cameras at some of the RNC proceedings in Charlotte with our own crew, but details with the Republican National Committee remain in flux one week out. What won’t change, however, is that our team will maintain C-SPAN’s role as the one place viewers can count on for live, gavel-to-gavel coverage, without any interruptions. It has been our approach at every convention since 1984, and despite a pandemic, that won’t change in 2020.
There are many so options out there for Americans to parse through when it comes to convention and election night coverage. Why should Americans tune into C-SPAN for these landmark events?
Whether it’s an early primary state house party, a presidential caucus, campaign rally or now the party conventions, we have a single goal: to take the viewer there! We strive every day to give the audience a sense of being in the room, unfiltered, as it happens. Our colleagues on other cable news networks often produce every minute with commentary, talking heads and analysis, and yes commercials. While we will offer the perspective of public officials, journalists and other experts around our coverage, the main event is the convention itself, as it happens. So viewers can sit back, take it all in, react to the speeches and make up their own mind. That’s refreshing in today’s often partisan media environment.
Provide us with an especially interesting anecdote from the first presidential election you ever covered.
You never forget your first campaign or convention as a journalist! Mine was the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. As a young reporter, I was assigned to cover it for WHEC-TV in Rochester, N.Y. The drama that year was over party platform differences between the [Michael] Dukakis campaign and Rev. Jesse Jackson. It was also the keynote address of Texas Governor Ann Richards, where she lit into then Vice President George H.W. Bush.
In 1988, a very good friend from Rochester, Patrick Morris, was part of the lead advance team for Governor Dukakis. Like others on the campaign, he was staying in one of the dorms at Emory University. Since I had an extra bed in my downtown hotel room, I told him he could stay with me. On the final night of the convention, he was out very late. I got up super early to catch my flight back to Rochester. Quickly packing up my suits and shirts, I also inadvertently packed up all of his as well. Pat had a light blue seersucker suit on the final day of the convention, and for the next four days on the road! Needless to say, it brought more than a few smirks from his colleagues. Even Governor Dukakis commented on the suit that Patrick never seemed to take off. To this day, I cannot live that moment down with him.
How has social media changed how you cover presidential campaigns?
It has changed everything. The news is instantaneous, everyone has the power to cover events on their smartphones and post on their favorite social media site. In this fast-paced media cycle, the challenge is always to remain relevant. For C-SPAN, that means a greater emphasis on live event coverage. With the ability to program three cable networks, our radio station and the web, we have plenty of options to bring our event coverage to the viewers in whatever format they prefer. And on social platforms, C-SPAN has a really robust presence—oftentimes being first to get news clips into the broader political discussion. Bottom line, we work every day to make sure the content is delivered the way our viewers and listeners disseminate their news and public affairs, always without any commentary.
Who is one political reporter whose work you truly admire?
It is impossible to pick just one. I admired the shoe-leather tenacity of [the late Washington Post political reporter] David Broder, the tough interviewing skills of [the late Meet the Press moderator] Tim Russert, the work ethic of [the late PBS NewsHour co-anchor] Gwen Ifill and my early mentor in this business, [the late WSEE-TV anchor] Carol Pella. She was a local reporter who gave me my first break in Erie, Pa. She questioned everyone and everything. Each one of these political reporters: tough, but always fair. A reminder to ask the direct questions and get it right the first time
What’s the best meal/restaurant you’ve had/been to during election coverage?
If it’s a primary season, you cannot beat New Hampshire’s Red Arrow Diner. It’s a “must” every four years for anyone covering politics or running for president (and if you go, ask for the C-SPAN coffee mug). And the best overall meal: Doe’s Eat Place in Little Rock, Ark. During the 1992 and 1996 elections, I had more than my fair share of steaks, beating any New York steakhouse by far. It is legendary in Arkansas politics, and was also the best place to catch up on Clinton politics during the ’90s.