By Emmanuel Touhey - 04/10/12 11:44 PM EDT
Just over a year ago, Brian Lamb donated the entire library from his “Booknotes” program to George Mason University and moved out of “Executive Row” to a smaller office at the C-SPAN bureau at 400 N. Capitol St. NW. The move was a signal that the man who founded the network in 1979 was ready to begin a new chapter in his life. While his decision to step down as CEO on C-SPAN’s 33rd birthday might have surprised some, it was clear to those who know him that Lamb had been laying the groundwork for his departure.
“We started talking about this two years ago,” Lamb told The Hill. “It was time.”
Appearing on C-SPAN’s “Booknotes” program in 1997, author Frank McCourt recalled what he used to say to his students at Stuyvesant High School in New York. “By the end of this term, there’s one person in this class who will have learned the most, and that’s me, because I want to learn.” They’re words that Lamb could have spoken himself of his more than three decades at the helm of the network.
Assessing his legacy is no easy task, but if there’s one word that sums up Lamb best, it is “process.” He wanted to know how government works, how policy is formulated, how laws are made, and how writers think and write. Over the decades, Lamb has educated himself and the public by unveiling the U.S. government and its history to anyone who wants to watch or listen.
NBC White House correspondent Chuck Todd says it’s this access that gives the network its anti-establishment vibe.
“It’s the most populist entity in town,” he said.
Asked if he was anti-establishment or populist, Lamb summed it up this way: “I’m anti-big power. I don’t know if that’s populist or not.”
In addition to C-SPAN, more than two dozen states now have televised coverage of their state legislatures. Former C-SPAN employees manage three of those channels (in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Wisconsin).
C-SPAN’s extensive online video library counts some gems among the more than 190,000 hours of programming, including one from 2003 with presidential historian Robert Caro sifting through papers at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin, Texas.
“The very idea that he’d show a historian going through papers was revolutionary,” Caro said. “I didn’t think it would work, but it did. To this day people remember that program.”
Lamb subsequently interviewed Caro at his New York office in 2008, where he asked the historian to explain how he wrote his books. This is the stuff of C-SPAN.
“He’s interested in what I’m interested in — political power,” Caro said of Lamb.
Trusting the public with access has been the hallmark of C-SPAN. For more than three decades, the network has provided gavel-to-gavel coverage of the House, with the Senate following suit in 1986. Hearings, briefings and panel discussions have been added to the mix over the years.
While most lawmakers believe the impact on Congress has been largely positive, there are some downsides.
“Increased transparency exposes the deficiencies of democracy in a profound way,” former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said. “And it’s changed the context and tone of debates on the floor and in committees. It’s still something we’re learning to adjust to.”
Former Utah Republican Sen. Bob Bennett agreed.
“When they got television, senators started to speak to their audience rather than each other, and the art of oratory was lost. You never get a real exchange on the floor.”
C-SPAN’s mission to provide access to the political process will remain front and center as Swain and Kennedy both look for ways to share what the network covers through new technologies and social media — though in some respects, C-SPAN has been a pioneer and ahead of its time. Long before Twitter and Facebook, there was “Washington Journal,”
C-SPAN’s morning call-in program, in which hosts take up to 60 calls in three hours from viewers, who can talk directly to members of Congress, administration officials, reporters and historians alike.
The challenge ahead for the subscription-based network — six cents of each subscriber’s cable bill goes toward
C-SPAN’s annual budget of $60 million — will be to stay abreast of distribution technologies and how that effects the cable industry. For now, data plans continue to preserve the business model. But embracing change will remain key to the network’s survival.
“When you’re a more mature organization, you have to encourage innovation,” Swain said.
Praise for Lamb since his announcement has been constant. As his fellow Hoosier, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R), put it, “He’s not just a superb journalist, but part of a disappearing breed, a scrupulous reporter that never puts himself ahead of the story. Brian is the antithesis of all that.”
Always a reluctant celebrity, Lamb joked of the recent attention.
“This is what it’s like when you’re buried alive,” he said.
Touhey, The Hill’s comment editor, was a C-SPAN producer from 1998 to 2007.