What It Was Like At C-SPAN As Women Flooded The Network With Stories Of Sexual Abuse

Steve Scully has been at the network for decades. But as he fielded call after call on Thursday, he could tell something different was happening.
Steve Scully, a senior executive producer at C-SPAN, wasn't expecting the calls that came on Thursday, but he wasn't exactly surprised, either.
Steve Scully, a senior executive producer at C-SPAN, wasn't expecting the calls that came on Thursday, but he wasn't exactly surprised, either.
The Washington Post via Getty Images

A strange thing happened on Thursday: Everyone started talking about C-SPAN. During its coverage of the Brett Kavanaugh hearing, the normally stolid channel turned into something else: an impromptu national town hall on sexual assault.

As Christine Blasey Ford told the country that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in 1982, woman after woman started to call in to C-SPAN to tell senior executive producer and host Steve Scully about the men who had sexually abused them.

“Well over a dozen,” he estimated. “It was such an organic moment. It just happened. We didn’t plan it.”

Some of the callers were Democrats. Some were Republicans. Some were young, but many of them, like Ford, were years removed from the incident.

Scully hadn’t expected to be flooded with calls. But he also wasn’t entirely surprised. After almost three decades with C-SPAN, he has come to expect people to call in during moments of national crisis. He compared Thursday to covering Anita Hill’s testimony and the Sept. 11 attacks.

“These just became moments where everyone was watching, everyone had an opinion, and the raw emotion bubbled up,” he said.

Whether or not anyone notices. C-SPAN fields calls from regular Americans every day, so much so that John Oliver and Co. once dubbed Scully “The Most Patient Man In America.” Jokes or not, Scully said listening helps him truly feel the pulse of the nation in a way others might not be able to.

HuffPost spoke with Scully about what it was like inside C-SPAN on Thursday.

This conversation has been slightly edited and condensed.

I wanted to ask you about the calls you got on Thursday ― a number of them were from sexual assault survivors. Just the sheer number of stories was pretty remarkable. Was that something that you were expecting?

No, it wasn’t something that we expected, but it also did not surprise us. We open our phone lines every day, every morning for our programming. During the course of the day, I think what we saw, though, was just the sheer, raw emotion from the testimony of Dr. Ford, and I kind of compare it to two things. We did the same thing after Anita Hill, but more recently, after 9/11. These just became moments where everyone was watching, everyone had an opinion, and the raw emotion bubbled up.

Once we got one call, it seemed like every other caller was another victim of sexual abuse, and that’s what was really so incredible. It just seemed to be a watershed moment.

How do you find that this moment compared to the Anita Hill moment that you covered all those years ago?

Obviously, there are similarities in terms of the hearing and the drama. The comparison is that you have these “I was there” moments. I mean, people remember 9/11. People who watched Anita Hill remember what was happening.

One of the things that we do best as a network is ― you know, we don’t have pundits. We don’t have talking heads. We just hear from the American people. And that was 27 years ago, but I do remember when we took calls then, and when we took calls after 9/11, the emotion just came pouring out. You had so many people ― they just had to speak. People wanted to be heard.

And we’re the one network that allows people to have a voice and share it with people around the country. You’re always going to get the emotion. But this one was a little bit different just because of the intensity of the calls that we were receiving.

What did you find yourself thinking about as these calls started to come through and pile up?

I listened. I just listened. And I think the American people, those who watch C-SPAN, just wanted to listen. I mean, they had just heard from Christine Blasey Ford. We did calls in the breaks and then during the lunch break and the transition between Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh.

And, you know, my job is not to become part of the story. My job is to be a facilitator, and whether I’m doing an interview or moderating the [morning C-SPAN show] “Washington Journal,” or taking calls, we just want to listen, and I think that’s something we need to do more of, maybe, in this country. And hopefully, C-SPAN can be part of that.

Did any of the comments from the women stick with you?

Brenda, who was the first one ― 76 years old. There were a number of other callers. What struck me is that most of the callers were in their 50s, 60s or 70s. And most of them were recounting what happened when they were young teenagers. There was one [woman who] was 23, and she had been abused when she was 17 and 18, so that was relatively fresh in her mind. But the general theme of those who did call that were older is that they remember what happened and they explained exactly what happened. That’s what I took away from it.

Look. I’m married, I’ve got three daughters, I have five sisters. Sexual abuse is an issue in our country, and it has to be addressed, whether you agree or disagree with everything that happened yesterday.

Chris Wallace was talking on Fox News about conversations he had had with his daughters, it’s been interesting to see ―

I think we all have. I’ve had those conversations. I have a younger daughter who’s only 9, but I have two older daughters, and I’ve had that conversation because it is an issue out there. Men need to treat women with respect, and sadly, that doesn’t always happen.

I wanted to ask: You talked about hearing from a broad swath of the American people. I couldn’t help but notice there were also some callers calling in and saying Ford seemed like she was lying. What do you see as the news value of taking those sort of calls as well?

First of all, we don’t know what people are going to say. Our job is to put it out there, and as long as they’re not using corrosive language or as long as they’re not going in the gutter ― our calls reflect America. What people are saying is a reflection of what Americans are saying.

I come from a big family, so I have liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans [in my family], and they have their own point of view. When people call in to the program, they’re expressing their point of view. So as long as they keep it civil ― even if they show emotion, even if they say so-and-so is lying or so-and-so is incompetent, whatever the issue happens to be ― as long as they keep it aboveboard, we want to hear from everyone. I don’t know what the person is going to say. None of us who hosts these programs knows what the people are going to say once you get on the air.

What was it like inside C-SPAN? Was this something that people were talking about among themselves? It took a while, but then people said “Wow, have you tuned in? There’s something going on over there.”

I was on the set. Some people were saying, “Hey, this is really beginning to resonate.” We didn’t really change our approach. We had always planned on taking calls. Certainly, the social media lit up. I mean, look, I knew right away when we were getting these calls that we’d tapped into something. I’m out there. I’m taking the calls.

We were the pool cameras for the hearing itself, so not only did we have the responsibility of producing our own coverage, but everything that you saw on all the networks came from the C-SPAN cameras. Really, our primary focus is to make sure that we have everything in place so that the cameras were working and the coverage was first-rate, because ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, CNN ― everyone was counting on C-SPAN to make sure we do a first-rate job. So that was our primary focus.

But yes, once we started to get the calls ― I don’t know what the final number was, but well over a dozen women called in expressing their own shame or anger at being a victim of sexual abuse. And they were all very ― they showed emotion, but they were all very thoughtful and very clear and in many ways mirrored what we heard from Dr. Ford. Because she also said, “I don’t remember all the details but I remember what happened.”

Another viewer called and said, “I remember I was abused at a beach. I can’t tell you exactly where it was, but I can tell you exactly what happened.” That was interesting that we had those parallels. Conversely, we had a lot of people who said the Democrats are wrong to do this and they were critical of Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats and [said] Judge Kavanaugh is being smeared, so we heard that as well.

You also heard these women say, like Ford, that they hadn’t told many people ― that it wasn’t something they had talked about very much with a lot of people, and I couldn’t help but notice that parallel with Ford as well.

Yeah, and I asked them that because I wanted to find out ― you know, I’m speaking as a white male, so I’m speaking to a victim of abuse and I was curious, does her story resonate? What happened in your situation? Is there a familiar or similar pattern? So that’s why I had asked those questions.

After you wrapped up, what did you find yourself thinking about? Did you have any conversations about it?

I was exhausted. It was a full day. I was exhausted from the day because there was so much emotion and so much coverage. Just hearing Judge Kavanaugh and hearing from Dr. Ford and then taking our calls, and I think ― we just kept going on into the evening. I wrapped up around 8 o’clock. And then we carried into the evening with another host. But I think we were happy with the way that the coverage worked out because so many were counting on us, but I think we also felt emotionally drained.

How could you not? You have two very powerful witnesses giving some very powerful testimony on some issues that really are resonating with our country ― and C-SPAN, I think, played a small part.

We like to say that we are America’s town hall because we want people to take it all in, and I’ve gotta tell you too, even the calls that were critical of the Democrats, it was fascinating to hear both sides. And yes, they had emotion. And yes, they showed anger. But they also showed civility. I hope that makes sense. They expressed their views, and like I said, we are a reflection of where the country is.

One of the things I remember in the 2016 election is all the pro-Trump callers, the passion that they had in their voice. I remember saying to people, you know this could prove that Donald Trump could win the presidency, and sure enough, he won it. So what you’re getting from the C-SPAN callers is really where the country is on so many different levels.