The Democratizer

C-SPAN's Brian Lamb talks about big spending, the First Amendment, and putting cameras where government doesn't want them to go.


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."

For instance, Bush v. Gore we got right away. We send a letter, and all the networks usually join us in the idea. It's just been up and down over the years. The current chief justice has basically said no for a long time. There was a time when he would say yes. There's no rhyme or reason to what arguments we get. We think this is so nonthreatening that the chief justice would do well by letting us have it all. You're not taking any chance by letting us have the oral arguments on audio.

reason: Is it true that the Terri Schiavo oral arguments perfectly sync up with The Wizard of Oz?

Lamb: My lack of response represents the way we at C-SPAN would answer a question like that.

reason: If we have audio in addition to transcripts, why isn't that sufficient?

Lamb: Why don't we just rely on print reporters to tell us what goes on in the White House or the Congress? It's a new world, and video is here to stay. The First Amendment protects it just like everything else. There should not be a different supply to these different media.

reason: Michael Powell, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in the Bush administration, used to talk a lot about how you can't have different standards for news that's delivered via print, via broadcast signals, or via cable; you've got to have one standard. The First Amendment should apply to everything. He worried that the problem with pushing that argument is that the First Amendment protections historically accorded to print might go away, and every medium might be treated more like broadcasting. Is there a shift toward a universal application of the First Amendment, and is it going in what you would consider to be the right direction?

Lamb: I don't see any real evidence that it's changing. There are always threats, and different political sides like to kick up their heels on the issue of the Fairness Doctrine and equal time and all that. It is interesting that anybody ever thought that electronic media deserved a different standard than print media. The only reason they ever got a foot in the door was that the original television stations and radio stations were licensed by the government because of the shortage of spectrum. That pretty much has gone by the wayside; you have things like Sirius XM radio, podcasts, the Internet.

The thing you always have to keep in mind is you have a couple thousand regulators over at the FCC. Once you have an organization like that, you have to do things. You have oversight committees on Capitol Hill, and it's a good way to raise money. You throw in a bill that brings back the Fairness Doctrine [which required broadcasters to present balanced coverage of controversial issues], and all of a sudden you've got lots of people paying you money for your campaigns.

reason: Nowadays the scarcity argument—the argument that the government needs to be involved because outlets are scarce—applies more to newspapers, since every city in America has far more cable news outlets and TV broadcast outlets than it has newspapers. Do you think it's a good idea for the government to get involved in this area, whether it's by helping nonprofits form or by subsidizing print outlets?

Lamb: For 31 years I've been associated with an organization that has spent a billion dollars totally from business, not from government. There's not a dime from tax money in here. As a matter of fact, if it ever got to that I'd leave. I think the mixing of tax money and the media is a very, very bad idea. With the money comes the nudge, the power, the suggestion. It's bad enough when you pay for it yourself. It would be far worse if taxpayer money went into these media organizations. I don't think the government has any role to play at all.

reason: C-SPAN is created and funded by the cable industry. Do you ever get pressure from the cable industry?

Lamb: None.

reason: Are you just saying that? Is that what they tell you to say?

Lamb: Absolutely not. [laughs] It's fascinating. Over the last 31 years I will bet you that I have had three or four conversations with somebody in the cable industry saying, "You ought to do this." The first time it happened, I mentioned it to my chairman. I said, "I'm getting a little gas from this guy who's on our board." He said, "Well, let's just add an amendment to our constitution that says no board member can have anything to say about programming." We just ended that.

reason: In 1996 Tom Hazlett, an economist who's now at George Mason University, interviewed you for reason. One of the big issues then was concentration of ownership in the media. Many people would say it's worse now than it's ever been. Do you find that to be a threat?

Lamb: It's a far better picture for the average person in this country than it's ever been. I personally don't like it when I see one company owning lots of things; that's just a personal thing. I don't like the idea of legislating that. As long as you have tremendous opportunities to express yourself through things like the Internet, it's pretty hard to put the genie back in the bottle.

reason: Do you worry that the Fairness Doctrine might be revived and that it might be applied to cable, the content of which historically has not been regulated? Or that the FCC will say that since cable is where the action is we should be regulating it now?

Lamb: I worry about anybody in government thinking they can regulate speech, regulate channels, regulate content. You can't keep track of it. People can't watch it all. There's so much out there today. Compared to when I talked to Tom Hazlett, it's unbelievable how much is out there. I can't even begin to watch what's on our own networks. I'm lucky if I see 10 percent of it.

reason: So you haven't seen the C-SPAN porn channel?

Lamb: Well it's kind of subliminal. It works behind C-SPAN 3. [laughs] It just comes at you, and you have to watch very closely when it comes through.

reason: Do you worry about campaign finance laws affecting C-SPAN? 

Lamb: I really don't worry about that. The only really big threat to us is the millions and millions of undocumented taxpayer dollars that are being spent right now by the federal government to do their own television about their own institutions, controlled by their own cameras. It's going on throughout the government, and no one is paying any attention to it. One day we're all going to wake up, and everything that the government is doing, at least as viewed by government staff, is going to be on the Web, and people might say, "Why do we need you?" The big threat is that they will run the cameras themselves, that they'll decide what shots they get. Journalism will be diminished even further by that.

reason: In the 1996 reason interview, you were really big on satellite radio, and at some point you said, "Boy, imagine driving in a car with a satellite radio." Has satellite radio paid off in your estimation?

Lamb: Satellite radio has been fabulous. We've been allowed to put our product on XM. We go into probably 18 to 20 million cars. We're able to be heard all over the United States, and so have a lot of talk show people on the left, the right, and the center that would have never been heard otherwise.

reason: Talking about the left, right, and center, do you think political discourse is particularly debased now, or angry and vitriolic, or is it same old, same old?

Lamb: I think what's going on in talk is fabulous. The hard right, the hard left, I don't care what it is. It's stimulating a lot of people to think.

Some people aren't thinking. They have a point of view. That's fine; they've always had that. But we act like this is all new. I mean, remember when they used to strap guns to their belts and go into the House of Representatives and challenge one another to duels? This is pretty tame stuff.

reason: Are you a technological determinist? On a certain level, your entire career at C-SPAN is based on technological innovation, whether it's branching out of cable, cheaper technology for cameras, for transmission, the Internet. Are we really following technology when we think that we're in control of it?

Lamb: We are following technology, and every single time things get better it's because some genius engineer invented a multiplex somewhere, and they get no credit whatsoever for it. The talent you see, including yours truly, really would never exist without the technologist.

reason: Do you have political heroes?

Lamb: No.

reason: Do you actually not have them or do you not want to talk about them?

Lamb: I don't have them. You know, people who watch us think we have an agenda. There is no agenda. I've gone through different stages in my life where I thought I knew what I was talking about, but my only agenda now is, How are you going to pay for this? I don't care what you spend it on. That's a decision that the process can make very carefully, or not so carefully. Where is the money coming from? Money is the biggest issue in the United States, the debt and that whole issue. That's going to be what kills us, not whether you're pro-choice or pro-life. Those issues are for people other than us to decide, and it's really hard here because the government makes it hard for us to find the money.

reason: You're one of the great prophets of transparency. How did your experience in the Pentagon during the Vietnam War era, as well as your service in the Nixon administration, affect your views regarding transparency in government?

Lamb: Oh boy, there's a can of worms. When I was in the Navy and the Pentagon as a wide-eyed 24-year-old, I was learning everything for the first time. And I watched this thing that went on between the networks—there were only three at the time—and the government, the dance that was conducted in the middle of the Vietnam War. The fascinating thing is that the Vietnam War was as open as any war has ever been. But the government hated what the media did during the Vietnam War. I mean, the government usually hates what the media do in all wars. But just watching that process led me to think that we needed more openness. This is not an intellectual thing for me. It's just that the tidier it gets, the more misinformation gets out.

For two years I was the guy on the desk that the three networks would call to ask Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to appear on Face the Nation, Issues and Answers, and Meet the Press. And for the entire two years, he said no. The entire seven years that he was there, he said no, until the day he resigned. So all during that period he avoided the questions—and they were much tougher questions in those days. One guest would come on for 30 minutes and answer questions, usually from journalists, and they would go after them. But Robert McNamara refused to talk to any of those shows.

My early experience taught me this needs to be—not transparent, I hate the word—but open. It needs to be open. And I had the same experience when I went to the Nixon administration. I was 29 years old. I worked for [Office of Telecommunications Policy Director] Tom Whitehead, one of the best thinkers I've ever known. And he truly, in his gut, in his heart, believed in openness. The Nixon administration didn't. Richard Nixon and the people that were meeting around him didn't care one thing about openness. That's the last thing they wanted.

When Tom Whitehead proposed getting rid of the Fairness Doctrine, the crowd right around Richard Nixon was really ticked off, because they wanted to use it as a weapon against the television networks to make them report things the way they wanted them reported. The more I saw up close of government and its interaction with the media, the more I felt that you needed to have no regulation, because the more leverage they have with regulation, the more they will use it to control speech.

reason: Do you vote?

Lamb: Yes.

reason: Do you talk about who you vote for?

Lamb: Never.

reason: Shouldn't that be a part of openness?

Lamb: If I were making editorial decisions every day here, and there was a way to fool the public in what we do here, maybe. But I'm a private citizen. I don't have to tell you how I voted. If I gave my views, which I don't, maybe that would make a difference. But I've never really thought a journalist should have to give their views. If reporters have strong views that influence their work, I suppose I'd prefer to know what side they're on.

reason: You talked about how your professional life informed your dedication to openness. What about your hometown? How did growing up in Lafayette, Indiana, influence who you are and what you do?

Lamb: Indiana at the time had a rule that if you worked for state government, the party in power got 2 percent of your income.

reason: Get out! Even the Mafia doesn't do that.

Lamb: Well, they don't do it anymore. But I really got educated about politics from my father, who was a wholesale beer distributor, which required a license from the state. He would pay money to the Democrat running and the Republican running, and then get furious when the winner wouldn't do what he wanted him to do. He loved the fact that he knew the chairman of the alcoholic beverage commission. He would take him to football games with him; he was a friend of our family. They worked when the governor was elected to get the person they wanted in as the chairman of the alcoholic beverage commission. It's a microcosm of what we have all over the country, and I said to myself, "There's something wrong with this."

reason: What's the solution? 

Lamb: I do not have a solution other than somehow the incredible money thing has to be taken out of politics if you want to clean it up at all. You know, you're never going to clean it up. It's human beings. Power is a lovely thing to have, and people want it, they go after it, and once they get it they want to keep it, they can't give it up. You have people who are in their 80s and 90s who can't leave the Senate. And you begin to think if you're gone the place is going to pot. I don't know the answer.

reason: What do you think is the best political book, or book about political philosophy, that you've read? What's on your shelf of great political books?

Lamb: I have tried to read over the years Democracy in America by Tocqueville.

reason: Which means that you've failed.

Lamb: It's hard. A lot of it I've read. It's important. Obviously, The Federalist Papers has got great insights to it. I've read so many books like this over the years. I'm trying to think of the book that matters. You can go from one end of the spectrum to the other. You can do Saul Alinsky's book and Friedrich Hayek's book. I think if you're going to be fair to yourself you read them both so you can get an idea of how different parts of the spectrum think.

reason: Are there any political figures you get excited about, either because of their philosophy or because of their celebrity?

Lamb: No. I try not to. If you get terribly excited about any politician, then you begin to pull your punches on them. You just treat them all the same. I suspect that if I were not here doing this job I would find people in the political system more attractive. I like to see speakers who can move audiences. Over the years, two of the best were Mario Cuomo and Newt Gingrich. But after you've done this as long as I have, you tend to watch people who fall in different categories, not of right and left but of how they approach an audience, what do they do, whether it's Reagan or Obama. And what do they do to capture audiences' attention? You could also go to Larry King and Oprah Winfrey. They move people for whatever reason, and there's no rhyme or reason to why they do.

reason: How did you come up with the idea of asking authors on Booknotes about their acknowledgements: "Who is this person?" You could be an East German interrogator.

Lamb: It's just me. I suspect it came about because I always saw us as the antidote to what you saw on television. Not a celebrity, not emotionally involved. And because of that, I exaggerated this "stone face," as you would say, so I wouldn't give the people out there watching any indication of where I was coming from. It's taken to the extreme. It's not the way I am personally, where you don't want to laugh or smile or indicate wow, you're really terribly excited about sitting in front of this person.

reason: If you could put on a different mask right now, what would it be? If you could live your life over again?

Lamb: I'm not anxious to live it over again, but if I had to live it over again I'd be a drummer. Full time, on the road. Yeah.

reason: What kind of music would you play?

Lamb: I would be in the backup band for Merle Haggard or Willie Nelson. Either one. And if I couldn't do that, I'd be a roadie with Brenda Lee.