The Man Behind C-SPAN
By Lou Prato
Lou Prato is a former radio and television news director and a broadcast journalism professor at Penn State University.
In person C-SPAN creator Brian Lamb is friendly and likable. But as the network's best-known on-camera interviewer, he is often criticized for his lack of emotion on the air. Some have gone so far as to suggest that Lamb, like C-SPAN, has no personality at all. Thomas J. Meyer, in a complimentary New York Times magazine article, wrote that Lamb "has all the charisma of a test pattern. And none of the color." And in Mirabella magazine last year, Walter Kirn wrote: "Lamb is a video Buddha, television's most stationary being. His body, his desk and his chair are one."
Yet, Lamb's vision for public affairs programming is what has made C-SPAN a success. That vision can be traced to his Midwestern roots and his early exposure to politics. It's a legacy that goes back to a short tavern owner in Lafayette, Indiana, who made people laugh by dancing with a full glass of beer on his bald head.
"That was my grandfather, old Pete," Lamb recalls with a smile. "My dad was one of his seven kids and he used to talk about old Pete and what he had to do to keep the tavern going, including gambling in the backroom and payoffs to politicians."
Lamb's father, Bill, ran the tavern for a while, then became a wholesale beer distributor. "I watched my dad all his life crossing the palm of politicians on the left and right just to keep his distributor's license," says Lamb. "He worked his whole life to clean up the corrupt system. He had this love-hate relationship with the politicians. He loved them because they were interesting people and hated them because they always had their hands out."
Lamb has long maintained that he is nonpartisan, a claim not readily believed by everyone. Some have been suspicious of Lamb's work on the Nixon-Agnew campaign in 1967, in the Nixon White House and on the staff of then-Colorado Republican Sen. Peter Dominick. But Lamb also worked as a low-level military aide in the Lyndon Johnson White House. In addition, he has been a reporter for UPI radio and Cablevision magazine.
"I've never been a member of a political party nor have I ever contributed to any party," says Lamb. "Certainly, being from Indiana I was not raised in a liberal environment."
While much of the suspicion has dissipated, Lamb's Republican background caused tremors when he first proposed that C-SPAN be created to televise the proceedings of the House of Representatives in 1977. He bristles when recalling the sarcastic comments of CBS commentator Andy Rooney and others at a roast for Walter Cronkite during the the Society of Professional Journalists' 1985 convention.
"Rooney attacked me personally," Lamb recalls. "He said, 'Brian Lamb worked for the Nixon-Agnew White House and we know what Nixon and Agnew thought of the First Amendment."'
In fact, Lamb says his experience with the Nixon-Agnew campaign increased his cynicism about the political process. In 1967, Lamb was a field representative in the Midwest for "United Citizens for Nixon-Agnew." His main task was to tape record voter comments about political and social issues. At the end of each week the tape was dispatched to Washington where, Lamb assured the participants, the candidates would listen to it.
"I was naive and gullible enough to think this was an honest effort," Lamb says. "Later I was told all the tapes..were edited down to an hour that Nixon and Agnew heard – which was a total lie.
"I vowed that if I ever could, I would go back to the community and go on the street corner and ask people what they really thought about Nixon, Agnew and anything else... That was the origin of the call-in programs that are now the strength of C-SPAN."
To maintain his avowed neutrality, Lamb says he avoids the Washington party circuit. "There is a certain point in this town when people connect and suddenly you become really important," he says. "But there's a danger there because then people are constantly questioning your motives. And to be perfectly blunt, serving the needs of this town is not important because we're here to serve the needs of the general public." ###