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An Unblinking Eye on Capitol Hill

Television: C-SPAN's unbiased, no-frills coverage of government in action is a reflection of its unprepossessing founder, Brian Lamb.

April 09, 2001|DAN FESPERMAN | BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON — In his 22 years on television in this mecca of self-promotion, Brian Lamb has not once uttered his own name.

In his hourlong interview show "Booknotes" each week, Lamb appears on camera for about four minutes. His guest gets the other 56.

And when Capitol Hill's gossipy social season rolls around, Lamb is not among the congressmen, Cabinet secretaries and celebrity journalists who gather to drop names and rub elbows.

If you're wondering how anyone could possibly run a TV network this way in an environment so conducive to bluster over substance, then you just don't understand Lamb or C-SPAN, the cable network he founded in 1979.

You'd hardly be alone in your ignorance. At certain hours of certain days, when C-SPAN cameras lock onto members of Congress droning about bureaucrats and trade quotas, Lamb's troika of channels--C-SPANS 1 and 2, plus the new C-SPAN 3--may rank among the most unwatched in America.

Even when things get more interesting, you're liable to find a talking head on all three screens--someone either making a speech, joining a discussion or answering questions, all presented in the TV equivalent of a plain brown wrapper. No fancy graphics or catchy logos. No whooshing sound effects or blaring trumpets. No chatty panel of Sam, Cokie and George to tell us what we've just seen.

This kind of television tends to be an acquired taste. But the estimated 28 million viewers who've developed an appetite should know that Lamb, 59, is the main reason C-SPAN looks and sounds the way it does.

"He's the tone-setter," says John Splaine, a University of Maryland professor who gets paid to help keep C-SPAN as objective as possible. "He knew exactly what he wanted to do, and he wanted to be fair and accurate."

As tone-setters go, Lamb offers a subdued monotone. He has been called the Jack Webb of journalism, a just-the-facts straight man in an opinionated crowd of ambushers and noisemakers. On screen, his persona is as flat and colorless as his home state of Indiana, although around the office he's more like a collegial headmaster, chatty and amiable, yet demanding objectivity from co-workers even when they talk politics by the water cooler.

Lamb started C-SPAN when he was a Washington bureau chief for Cablevision magazine in the late 1970s. He didn't much like what he saw on the three major networks or the way they were monopolizing nationwide news delivery, capturing about 65% of the viewing public with their nightly reports.

"They became enormously powerful--in my opinion, too powerful--in a country that prided itself on diversity and choice."

He also didn't like much about the way the media and the government cozied up to each other in Washington. Lamb had come to town in 1965, a Purdue University graduate who'd joined the Navy and taken a public affairs job at the Pentagon, where he got his first look at this odd relationship.

Such practices persist, and they're still a pet peeve for Lamb. When reviewing the day's newspaper highlights on a recent "Washington Journal," C-SPAN's morning news and phone-in show, he referred to a story quoting a "senior administration official."

"We may never know who the senior official is," he said in a neutral tone, flipping to the next story.

He left the Pentagon in 1967, taking a job at a TV station in his hometown of Lafayette, Ind., but the next year he was back in Washington as a radio reporter. He later worked as a press aide to a U.S. senator, a staffer in the telecommunications office of the Nixon White House and then as the Cablevision bureau chief.

His idea was to get the cable industry, just coming into its own thanks to deregulation, to foot the bill and provide channel space for a public-service network offering live broadcasts of proceedings on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. Let the public watch the legislative sausage being made and judge for itself.

And beyond that? Well, C-SPAN would do much more someday, Lamb always believed. But it's hard to imagine what made him so optimistic when you look back to its humble beginnings.

"We had no cameras [those belonged to Congress], no tape recorders, no nothing," Lamb says. It was just him and three employees in an apartment on the Virginia side of the Potomac. They had one phone line and shared satellite time with basketball games and professional wrestling, working with an annual budget of $450,000. Initially some cable systems wanted nothing to do with them.

Thus was the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network born on March 19, 1979, with a broadcast from the House floor. Only 3.5 million households were hooked up, and it's impossible to say how many dozens actually tuned in.

But before long, this bland cable beast was growing like some giant mushroom in the dark--buying cameras, adding employees, beginning a phone-in show, creating a second channel with broadcasts from the U.S. Senate, adding programming from committee hearings, state governments, the British House of Commons.

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