C-SPAN Won’t Screen, Leaves Handling Callers to the Host

Posted April 3, 2010 at 7:01pm

A recent caller to a C-SPAN morning show said the network was allowing so many black viewers to call in that it should change its name to “Black-SPAN.”

Commentators from Mediaite to Jon Stewart noted host Bill Scanlan’s composure as he listened to the caller, with some arguing he should have responded more forcefully.

In an interview with Congress.org’s Craig Crawford last week, C-SPAN founder and CEO Brian Lamb said he has long struggled with the question of where to draw that line.

“It’s every host’s personal decision,” he said. “Some are more tolerant than others.”

Cable companies created the network in 1979 as a way to show live coverage of Congress. It later added its own programming, including call-in shows such as “Washington Journal,” but it has always strived to maintain a strictly objective viewpoint.

For that reason, Lamb argues the network will never screen its callers the way its for-profit counterparts routinely do.

“We have not done it and we will not do it,” he said. “It sounds goofy in some people’s mind, but it’s the people’s network. … The idea is to let it go, let it flow, let them say exactly what they want to say. Don’t be so jumpy that you think you know better than they do. And you know, there’s a lot of wisdom that comes through those calls.”

Over the years, Lamb has changed his mind over where the line is. When he started the network, he thought it was “terribly important and exciting” to keep the phone lines as open as possible, but after a while he found that frustrating.

“I sat there day after day and listened and found that I was being taken advantage of and the network was,” he said. “People were calling up and saying things that just had no basis in fact.”

After that, Lamb said he began challenging callers who said things that were untrue.

He said the network also checks callers to make sure they are coherent and are not drunk before putting them on the air. They also try to limit people from asking questions more than once every 30 days.

And, he said, the network has always cut off people who use swear words.

“If they get terribly nasty and if they use four-letter words and are abusive to the guest, cut ’em off,” he said.

Still, Lamb said he’s not averse to all swear words.

The network did not take down video of the recent off-color comment made by Vice President Joseph Biden before the signing of the health care bill.

“It’s available and uncensored,” he said.