Wendy Davis turned into a progressive political hero in the span of about 12 hours last Tuesday as a result of the stand (literally) that she took against a Texas Senate bill that would have placed strict new limits on abortions in that state. By Sunday, the two-term state senator was a guest on the Sunday political talk shows on ABC, CBS and NBC.
But her abortion-rights advocacy and her pink sneakers might have never gained national attention had she been in a state without a reliable live stream of the Legislature. Davis’ 11-hour filibuster inadvertently illuminated the stark technological differences that exist from state to state when it comes to broadcasting the public’s business.
In nearly a dozen states, there is no live video of legislative proceedings, only audio; in some other states that purport to provide video, the Web streams barely work. Even the audio, though, is of value to reporters, activists and ordinary citizens.
As journalistic organizations continue to cut back on the number of reporters stationed at statehouses across the country, state-level equivalents to C-SPAN on television and online are supplying new ways to bear witness to the machinations of state and local government.
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Some of Davis’ supporters and detractors will surely be watching Monday when the Texas Legislature reconvenes and takes up the bill again
The nonprofit news organization The Texas Tribune, based a few blocks from the state Capitol building in Austin, had gained access to the stream of state-controlled cameras there and set up a live YouTube channel for the legislative session.
While the same stream was also accessible through the Senate’s own website, that site looked almost comically old-fashioned compared with YouTube. Thus it was through YouTube that Davis’ filibuster was widely seen and shared.
“It’s great to see a channel like The Texas Tribune using YouTube to take a local story national — and probably won’t be the only time we’ll see this happen,” said Kevin Allocca, a trends manager at YouTube.
Online videos have been going viral for almost a decade, but what came out of the filibuster in Texas was something distinct: viral live video. Whether from a statehouse balcony or an activist’s smartphone, scenes that were once edited and distilled for television are increasingly being streamed live to an audience that spreads the news, or at least the pictures, themselves.
Streams from independent journalists at Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011 sometimes garnered tens of thousands of viewers. More recently, links to live streaming video of mass protests in Turkey, Brazil and, as late as Sunday, Egypt, have trended on social networks like Facebook and Twitter.
When the Texas Senate stream on YouTube peaked in popularity shortly after midnight Wednesday, as the end of the legislative session dissolved into chaos, 182,000 people were tuned in, about the same number watching MSNBC, one of the cable news channels that was mercilessly criticized for not broadcasting the Texas debate live.
The theatrical aspects of Davis’ filibuster and the seriousness of what was at stake “all resulted in people saying to their friends, ‘You have to look at this!’” said Andrew Lih, a professor of journalism and director of new media at the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism.
Many, probably most, of the online viewers wanted to see the Senate bill fail. They organized around Twitter hashtags like #StandWithWendy. But some anti-abortion campaigners followed along too, along with political wonks who simply enjoyed watching what The Dallas Morning News called a “knife-fight within the confines of Robert’s Rules of Order.”
The heavy online viewership helped to prompt television networks and other news outlets to follow up the next morning and subsequently. On “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Davis said she and other state Democrats would keep battling against the abortion bill.
Thanks to the heightened interest in the bill, The Texas Tribune website had “far and away the highest traffic day in our history,” said Evan Smith, its editor-in-chief. Visitors have pledged about $37,000 to the nonprofit organization, from a total of 37 states, reflecting the nationwide scope of the sudden attention.
Lih said that The Tribune had done something significant “by getting the Senate video, which existed already, into a portal where the people hang out,” that is, YouTube. “That is pretty simple but powerful,” he said.