Brian Lamb started C-SPAN at a time when Americans had very limited choices for news on television. Today, as Lamb steps down after a 33-year career at an organization known for its lack of spin, he reflects on C-SPAN’s legacy.
NJ How did you develop the interview style that you’re known for today?
LAMB I think I developed it in high school. I had a broadcasting teacher, and his constant pitch to us was, ask questions, use the “who, what, when, where, why, and how,” and listen. And I never forgot it. If you don’t listen, you ask dumb follow-up questions. If you don’t listen, you miss great opportunities to go back after some information somebody’s just given you.
NJ How did you develop the idea for C-SPAN?
LAMB Well, today’s world doesn’t remember what it was like back in the ’70s, when we had three commercial television networks and very little else was available to us on television. My involvement with the cable-television industry came out of a desire to change television and to improve choice. I basically stumbled into this with no great plan at a time when the cable-television industry was looking for ideas.
NJ What hurdles did you face to get public access to government proceedings?
LAMB If you go back and look at the history of it all, it’s been one institution after another changing their rules. During the time when Speaker [Sam] Rayburn was in control of the House of Representatives, he didn’t allow cameras in committee hearings, while the Senate did. And after he left, they opened up the House hearings to cameras. And then, later on, in the late ’70s, the House saw an opportunity to put the whole institution on television because they watched as the Senate got all the attention. So the House went on in 1979, and we just televised the House when they went in session.
And then seven years later, the Senate saw that they were losing ground to the House, and they opened up the Senate chamber in 1986 to television. So the pioneering on this wasn’t done by me; it was done by our democratic institutions deciding for their own reasons to open it up. And we just came along and took advantage of it.
NJ How has C-SPAN changed Congress?
LAMB It’s in the eye of the beholder. We get blamed now by members of Congress for things that aren’t going right or well. I’ve often said that’s baloney. If you can’t do the public’s business in public, something’s wrong.
NJ What do we, the public, not have access to that you wish we did?
LAMB The obvious [answer] is the Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court is taking a rather stubborn posture at this point, based on very different reasons from different members of the Supreme Court. There’s going to have to be a change, a vast change of attitude.
NJ Some call C-SPAN boring. What’s your response to that?
LAMB [A big smile.] It’s not supposed to be particularly exciting. It’s not supposed to be anything other than a reflection of what our political system is doing at any given time. We were set up in a way that we don’t have to worry about whether we’re boring one day or exciting the next. We don’t have ratings; we don’t have stars; we don’t have advertising.
NJ What advice do you give to young people who want to be pioneers in the media world now?
LAMB A lot of my advice is so simple, it’s almost so obvious. But I always tell young people to know something. Don’t just waltz through life saying, I want to be a journalist because I like journalism or I like TV. That’s often the motive. You’ve got to be curious. I always tell them to watch their handshake when they’re meeting people, because people remember bad handshakes—and unshined shoes. But those are the small things. You have to pay attention to the world. Especially if you’re going to come to this town, you’ve got to read, read, and read more; watch everything, listen to everything. Then apply your enthusiasm, and people along the way will help you.
NJ What do you think of the growth of partisanship and punditry on television news?
LAMB Overall, we’re in a better place than we used to be, because we have more choice of thought. It used to be on CBS Evening News, an anchor would get his minute and a half every day, and that was known to be the word of the day. Now, the numbers on the evening news shows are way down. Where they have maybe 20 million people watching every night, they used to have 40 million people in a world that had 100 million less people.
We have choice now. I think you’re better off as a person if you listen to all different sides. But we’re much better off as a country than we’ve ever been, going way back, except in the very early days when you had so many pamphlets and newspapers and all that. That was a good time. But television’s powerful. And I don’t think it ever will be what it was when I was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, and we’re better off for that.
This article appears in the Sep. 15, 2012, edition of National Journal.