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Patt Morrison Asks

Brian Lamb: Medium Cool

The C-SPAN founder discusses the tone of political discourse, his channel's impact on government and more.

June 19, 2010|Patt Morrison

People have mistaken him for John McCain. People have mistakenly thought he's been off the airwaves for years. And inside the Beltway, where egos are the size of Montgolfier balloons, Brian Lamb doesn't have a problem with any of that. The founder and CEO of C-SPAN believes that if he can't retire from the airwaves without a big fuss by viewers, the channel isn't the no-star vehicle he designed it to be.

C-SPAN began in 1979 with a no-brand brand: all governing, all the time, no jokes, no spin. Its reach now includes three channels, radio, a video archive and a big Web presence. Lamb is working for the day that C-SPAN goes interactive on the Internet, and viewers can click to see details about a politician's history, right down to campaign contributions. The C-SPAN bus travels the country, its staff, like Lamb, doing a lot more listening than talking.

C-SPAN's stars are the callers, and the politicians. Sometimes, they're one and the same. Ted Kennedy used to phone in. Ronald Reagan did, too, a couple of times, when he was in the White House. So has Cher. In D.C.'s cacophonous and venomous media mash-up, Lamb is Mr. On-the-One-Hand-On-the-Other-Hand, and makes sure he never overplays either one.

You didn't like the name C-SPAN at first?

The name was I guess the best at the time for what we were trying to do: Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network. I would have called it USA Network. Didn't think of it at the time.

Is it part of the C-SPAN charter that hosts have to be great stone faces?

There's nothing written down. From the beginning we wanted to be neutral, really neutral, to the point where we've been made fun of. We try very hard to stay out of it so the public doesn't say, "Oh, you're on one side or another." It doesn't matter how hard you try, by the way — they think you're on a side. When I first got to Washington, I spent two years in the Johnson White House, and later three years in the Nixon [administration]. I've often chuckled over that because, depending on what side you're on, you read just that I was in [with] Johnson or Nixon. I've never been a member of a political party, but people will superimpose on you what they want.

So a host's personality does not give a C-SPAN show its tenor?

The host can have a personality, but it reflects how they want to guide the show, not how they think or whether they're funny or any of that. It's a call-in show, it's not a host-driven show, and it's different than every other show on purpose.

Some caller was recently spouting pretty racist stuff and the host didn't bat an eye.

That particular call, Jon Stewart picked up on and made an issue of it. Our host, who's really a good guy, basically sat there when a guy complained that there were too many black callers. He made the mistake of saying to him, "I respect your point of view." He really didn't mean it. When you sit there every day and take 60 calls — and we do have a quota that you have to take 60 calls in three hours — sometimes you zone out, and that's what happened. It was really a wakeup call for our folks. We say to our hosts if somebody's going off on a racist rant or an anti-Semitic rant, cut 'em off, that's not what we're there for.

I've read that you think callers have become more strident and more partisan.

It happened probably during the Clinton years. We split our callers [phone lines], Democrat versus Republican versus independent, which was painful to do, but because there was so much dislike among conservatives for Bill Clinton for different reasons, they would dominate the show, and that's not what we felt we were there for. Fox News came in in 1996, so did MSNBC, and that began another revolution.

Do you lose audience to those left- and right-wing shows?

The answer is yes. The excitement that some people saw in us in the early years went away when they could find a place that they could go to every day that represented their views. We have more voices from more points of view on the C-SPAN call-in show than I've heard anywhere else. You can literally tune us in every day and hear it all. You can't control it, and you shouldn't control it. Unfortunately a lot of call-in shows are controlled, they're over-controlled. There's one major national show where they literally take the call and call them back to make sure they can control, not necessarily what they say but the kind of person who gets on. Control always gets you in trouble.

Are members of Congress so accustomed to the cameras that they're no longer consciously aware of them?

Oh no, they're very aware of the cameras: Bingo, there's a camera in this room. Once in a while it's human nature [that] you forget, but I think most people know.

Do people try to game C-SPAN?

Oh sure. There've been boiler-room setups by different organizations to make sure they get heard, but no matter how hard they try, there are too many people trying to get in for them to control the long-term message.

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