The Capitol camera never blinks

by Christy Perry

December 2, 2008

C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb brings wit and wisdom to Newhouse

The federal government -- uncensored and uncut. That's what C-SPAN is all about. And the man who put that first camera inside the US Capitol shared his insights and anecdotes with Newhouse students and faculty in early December. Newhouse Dean Lorraine Branham moderated the evening discussion.

C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb explained to the group gathered in the Hergenhan Auditorium that the idea for the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network first came to him in 1969. He was serving in the US Navy at the time and knew that somehow, he wanted to change television. He believed that the three TV networks and their news operations held too much power. He thought it was time for another voice.

But the late 60s was not yet the right time. A few years later, technology intervened. Mid-70s satellite capabilities made Lamb's idea for unedited Capitol Hill coverage economically feasible. Cable television operations were also expanding at that time. 

Lamb said he repeatedly pitched to many people the idea of televising the action inside the US House of Representatives. "I got a hundred nos before I got a yes," he remembers. Finally, a cable industry executive said yes and handed Lamb 25 thousand dollars of start-up money. That first contact has become a time-honored connection. Today, cable companies support C-SPAN's operations through voluntary financial support. 

Lamb's visit to Newhouse was, in fact, at the invitation of a Syracuse University alumnus who heads a major cable communications enterprise. Advance/Newhouse Communications chairman and CEO Bob Miron is a vocal C-SPAN supporter and serves on the C-SPAN Board of Directors' Executive Committee.

Co-hosts of Lamb's campus visit to classrooms and the student Q&A session include Newhouse's Knight Chair in Political Reporting Professor Charlotte Grimes and Maxwell Professor Robert McClure, the Chapple Family Professor of Citizenship and Democracy. 

Since its 1979 start-up, C-SPAN has grown out of the House and into the Senate and beyond. The public affairs network, now joined by C-SPAN 2, C-SPAN 3 and C-SPAN Radio, covers political events and press conferences, hosts call-in shows and showcases authors. Lamb has interviewed a journalist's dream team of prominent officials over the years. He has sat down with several US presidents, from Richard Nixon to George H.W. Bush and world leaders including former Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

His strategy in all interviews, he says, is to ask open questions and allow the viewer to draw her or his own conclusions. He admits asking politicians questions can be frustrating. "It's not so much that they lie to you, but that they don't let you know they have the answer," he observes. 

C-SPAN is not subject to TV ratings and its mission is non-partisan. Though he votes, Lamb says he doesn't support any particular political party. When students asked him about the widespread perception that the major US media show bias in reporting, he was philosophical. "I see bias all the time. [It] doesn't bother me as much as it used to." He is bothered, though, by news operations' continual claims to be fair and unbiased.

Newhouse Dean Lorraine Branham asked Lamb for his predictions about the future of television. "I don't know," he admitted, but "I knew 30 years ago that there would be a revolution and cable was going to lead it." He wonders if there will be a television industry, as we now know it, in the future because of the internet's impact. But he hopes audiences will seek out context for their information, instead of picking and choosing their news according to their own comfort levels. 

And what would Brian Lamb change about journalism today? "I'd save the newspaper," he quickly answered. "I'd change television news to spend more time showing the American people how [politicians in Washington] spend our money."

After the discussion, Lamb signed copies of his new book,Abraham Lincoln: Great American Historians on Our Sixteenth President, which is a collection of essays about Lincoln.