In 2003 reason named C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb one of our “35 Heroes of Freedom” for “turning a surveillance camera on the den of iniquity known as the U.S. House of Representatives.” America now takes it for granted that legislative debates, confirmation hearings, and White House press briefings will be broadcast somewhere on live television, and Brian Lamb is one of the main reasons why.
A famously stone-faced interviewer comfortable grilling figures from across the political spectrum without revealing his own leanings, Lamb, 69, actually got his start in television on an Indiana-based pop music show called Dance Date; he played drums for local bands while getting his undergraduate degree from Purdue. After a tour in the Navy, Lamb did press relations for Robert McNamara’s Defense Department and then worked for the Nixon administration, experiences that cemented his conviction that governments should be as open as possible. C-SPAN started the process of televised openness in 1979.
Though he keeps his personal politics close to the vest, Lamb has some strong views about government spending, regulation, and maintaining a Chinese wall between media and state. reason.tv Editor Nick Gillespie sat down with the C-SPAN founder for a wide-ranging—and far from stone-faced—interview this summer. Video versions are available at reason.tv.
reason: What have you been doing to get C-SPAN’s cameras into the Supreme Court?
Brian Lamb: We’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting. It’s like every other institution of government. There’s always a time when they decide, when it’s right for them. The Senate was closed to everybody for the first five years—everybody. You couldn’t go watch a debate. The Court is the last institution in the federal government to bar cameras, and I think we’ve got a while before we’re going to get there.
reason: What is the great benefit of taking C-SPAN–style transparency to the Supreme Court?
Lamb: It’s really a very simple thing. It’s a government institution that’s funded by the American taxpayers. The individuals who work there all get paid by the taxpayer. And the decisions aren’t even reached in that courtroom; they’re reached behind closed doors. The oral arguments are a public discussion, a public back-and-forth between the attorneys. It almost never lasts more than an hour, and it only happens 75 to 80 times a year. It’s not really that big a deal, and it just completes the picture that the public could have of the government they pay money to.
reason: Are all of the Supreme Court justices against it, or are there differences of opinions?
Lamb: We don’t really know. There’s never been a public vote. I asked Justice [Stephen] Breyer once in an interview, “Have you ever talked about it in the Court?” He said basically no, they hadn’t. I suspect they talk about it informally. I’ve only ever seen evidence of a vote once, and it came out in, of all things, an Irish magazine in which they were doing a special on William Brennan. If my memory serves me, he was the only one who had voted in favor of it out of the nine.
reason: People worry cameras will create a false sense of drama for oral arguments, that the judges and the lawyers will play to the cameras. Should that be a concern?
Lamb: It’s certainly not a concern to me, but it is a concern to individual Supreme Court justices, and they make the decision.
reason: The justices, partly because they are hidden from plain view, still have a kind of priestly mystery around them. Are they afraid that cameras will demystify their power? It is like going behind the curtain in Oz.
Lamb: I think there are a lot of things at work, and every individual justice is different. One of the factors is that they have the most respected institution among the government institutions, and so they’re just kind of saying, “Why change?” Also, you have individual justices who don’t want the attention. There are some who legitimately feel that this will be a show rather than an exchange of views. It’s so much different in the Court today than it used to be. It used to be a passive institution; now it’s activist. You’ve got these justices going at the attorney standing there in the well. The attorney can’t even say “Good morning” without “What did you mean by that?” and “Would you further go into the process?”
reason: C-SPAN posts audio recordings of oral arguments.
Lamb: Audio has been available for every argument since the ’50s. It used to be released, I believe, six months after the last argument of any term. You could get the hour of argument, and we did that. Every Saturday night, we put on an hour of Supreme Court oral argument. Then back during the Rehnquist Court we started asking for permission to get it the same day. We said actually we’d love to have it live. They said, “Oh no, not live. But we’ll give it to you periodically right after the argument is conducted.”