Sound-bites. Photo ops. Glitzy visuals. Attack ads. Prepared speeches. Cutesy one-liners tested on focus groups. Bumper stickers. Meaningless clichés. Cheap tricks. Tawdry politics. Cynical government. This is what high-minded Americans know has come to dominate our public life, and they say they would do anything to save our democracy from such a crass fate.
Brian Lamb doesn't spend much of his time denouncing the political culture, saving his efforts to actually provide an alternative. The creator of C-SPAN, the nonprofit, public affairs cable network, Lamb now serves as its CEO and chief on-air host. The integrated circuitry is not an outgrowth of CEO egotism; all on-camera moderators double as C-SPAN business executives, and Brian Lamb has not once uttered his own name in 16 years of airtime.
C-SPAN is a deadly serious, 24-hour news network which brings the political and cultural debate to the TV viewer un-edited. A White House press conference is carried in its entirety, as is a speech by Noam Chomsky at Howard University. As is a policy conference at the Cato Institute, the Freedom Forum, or the American Enterprise Institute. Yet the mainstay of C-SPAN continues to be nonstop coverage of the House of Representatives (C-SPAN1) and Senate (C-SPAN2) floor proceedings. It's an ugly job, but somebody's got to do it.
Before C-SPAN, nobody did. The broadcast networks, with the opportunity to reach tens of millions of viewers each half-hour, couldn't afford the low audience share which congressional debates, hearings, and policy conferences inspire. Only with the deregulation of satellites in the early 1970s and the deregulation of cable television systems in the late 1970s did the idea of C-SPAN make any sense. Only in the age of cheap transmission, abundant channel capacity, and free competition between video programmers could small audiences be served.
Lamb, who studied the economics of television in his days as an analyst in the White House Office of Telecommunications in the early 1970s, later moved into the cable TV business as a reporter for trade journals. In interviewing some key congressmen, he found that he could secure permission to televise Congress in action (which some people take to be one word): Uninterrupted, gavel-to-gavel coverage of the democratic process was just the sort of low-cost news and public affairs programming which the fledgling cable industry was looking for.
Several system groups backed Lamb's efforts, and the network was underway. Today it has an annual budget of $28 million.
For which it delivers just exactly the sort of product which the critics of American media have publicly propounded as the salvation for our political souls. Both sides of the spectrum have assailed the old broadcast network triopoly of news coverage: too corporate (says the left), too liberal (says the right), too sensationalistic (says everyone). In C-SPAN, Lamb has created a product alternative that is unassailable. C-SPAN is scrupulously nonpartisan, inherently patient, unerringly substantive. It is the policy wonks' DreamNet.
Which is somewhat curious, because the policy wonks in Washington have made nothing but trouble for Mr. Lamb. While often the recipient of industry kudos, his praises are sung only in the most patronizing ways in the inner councils of government. C-SPAN's existence is not the subject of laboratory study in the typical telecommunications policy shop; rather, analysts who claim they desire more of what C-SPAN delivers ignore the very reasons for C-SPAN's existence, or the factors which determine its future growth.
All of which is painfully apparent to Brian Lamb, a man who deadpans so well that his frustrated viewers have no idea whether he votes Democrat or Republican. So we should listen carefully when Brian Lamb elects to speak out, with conviction and opinion, in one area alone: communications policy and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett, a former chief economist at the Federal Communications Commission and currently a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, interviewed Lamb in late December. He was accompanied by Washington Editor Rick Henderson.
Reason: Why do you ask for personal information from the people you interview?
Brian Lamb: For so many years on television and on radio, the experts that we hear from kind of parachute in from outer space, and we know nothing about them. There are certain reference points in life that seem to matter: Did you work in a political campaign? Where did you go to school? Where did you live? Are you married? Do you have kids? Who got you started? All that helps you understand why they think what they think.
Reason: Where were you born? What did your parents do? How was it growing up?
Lamb: I was born in Lafayette, Indiana, to parents who didn't graduate from college. My father ran a tavern for a long time, and then was a wholesale beer distributor. My mother was from Arkansas. I grew up in a wonderful little community that had really one high school, and then went to Purdue University which is in the same town. It cost me $125 a semester. I got a speech degree because they didn't have a broadcasting school and then went to the Navy when I was 22. That was a real important change for me.
I thought I wanted to be a lawyer, which was a big mistake. I got admitted to Indiana University Law School, moved for the first time in my life outside of the city, set up shop down there [in Bloomington], and lasted three days. I decided that I didn't want to go to school anymore, I didn't want to be a lawyer. I wanted to go into the service and did.