The Real Story on C-SPAN

Book Explores The Man Behind The Network

Posted April 28, 2008 at 4:28pm

For Capitol Hill staff who rely on C-SPAN to stay apprised of what’s going on in Congress, it might be hard to imagine a world without the network.

Think legislative directors might not enjoy traversing the Cannon Tunnel to sit in the gallery and hear House leaders set the schedule for the next day’s session, for instance?

It is thanks to Brian Lamb, who started C-SPAN in 1979 and remains its president and CEO, that staffers can conveniently keep tabs on Congress from the comfort of their offices.

Staffers and the other 50 million people who watch C-SPAN are the target audience of “Founding Father: How C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb Changed Politics in America,” a biography published earlier this month. The book, written by Stephen Frantzich, who teaches political science at the Naval Academy, provides a portrait of a newsman who shies away from the spotlight and delights in cutting through spin to the facts of American government.

Lamb started C-SPAN as a public service to fill a void left by the major television networks, Frantzich writes. And he’s succeeded at least in some measure.

“Brian was part of the leading edge of this real-time politics that we are getting today,” Frantzich said in an interview. Before C-SPAN, it would take days or weeks for news of a Member of Congress’ activity to make it home to constituents. But “now Members will get calls from people saying, ‘I see on the floor that there’s going to be a vote on this soon, and I want you to vote this way,’” Frantzich said.

That’s not an insignificant change. And while C-SPAN may not have a wide reach, its audience is important to politicians.

“It does tend to be the mover-and-shaker kind of people [who watch],” Frantzich said. “It’s the people who give money, write letters and communicate with their Members of Congress. In that sense, C-SPAN is a vehicle for citizen involvement.”

Lamb started C-SPAN partly as a result of his sometimes-negative experience on the “spin” side of the news.

Early in his career, he worked in press offices at the Defense Department, for presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, and on Capitol Hill. In those jobs, Frantzich writes, Lamb “began to realize that network television was not showing the real story.”

Recalling his motivation for starting C-SPAN, Lamb once said that his “gut instinct … was that if I’m interested enough to want to know more of what’s going on behind the scenes, there’s got to be some more who feel the same way.”

Lamb had been interested in media since his childhood. He grew up listening to the radio and in high school got his first job in the business at WASK in Lafayette, Ind., performing odd jobs for $1 an hour.

In a fraternity at nearby Purdue University, Lamb was part of an odd scene “sitting around the fraternity house with a small cadre of news junkies,” Frantzich writes. “While others were doing their thing, Brian and his friends watched the news.”

By 1976, Lamb had made the transition from working as a press secretary to journalism, landing at Cablevision, the trade publication for the cable industry.

He then got the idea for a channel providing live coverage of Congress and began rounding up supporters among his contacts in the cable business. After negotiations with Members, including then-Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.), Lamb got Congress to pass legislation authorizing the videotaping of House floor action.

Even with Congress’ support, Lamb still needed cable providers to take a chance on a network that wasn’t likely to be a cash cow. He hadn’t conducted any polls or focus groups to find out whether there was an actual demand for the type of product he hoped to deliver, so he operated on “hope and assumption,” Frantzich writes, and on a “trust in the public’s interest in public affairs.”

Frantzich views Lamb as a “marriage broker” who was able to get the two sides to come together.

“Brian took the selfish motivations of Congress — Tip O’Neill, specifically — which was frustrated with media coverage,” Frantzich said. “He took the selfish motivations of the cable industry, which needed programming to fill its airwaves. I don’t know that either side was excited about opening up Congress [to broadcasting], but he got them working together.”

Lamb wanted broadcasts from the Senate as well, and with the support of Sen. and Senate historian Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), he eventually got the chamber to follow suit.

In 1989, Lamb started the Sunday program “Booknotes,” in which he and an author would sit down for a one-hour interview. It was on that show that Lamb’s modesty would shine through, according to Frantzich.

Lamb’s name would never appear on screen or be mentioned. In a typical show, Frantzich writes, “Brian appeared on the air for about four minutes and his guest for 56 minutes.” Unlike some anchors, Lamb would read the entire book before each interview — committing “1.8 years of my life to reading books for the series,” he once said.

Lamb hosted “Booknotes” from 1989 to 2004, and it continues to air today.

Lamb’s no-nonsense style is in stark contrast to that of many of today’s media personalities, said Frantzich, who added that Lamb remains a strong critic of the mainstream media.

“I see Brian as the midpoint between Dan Rather and Mike Wallace, a ‘gotcha’ journalist, and Larry King, a puffball journalist,” Frantzich said. “He’s more in the center: ‘I want information. Give me the facts … and we’ll let the audience decide if you make sense.’”