Media Matters

Brian Lamb at 25

Happy Anniversary, C-SPAN!

By 3.29.04

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WASHINGTON -- When you are a press secretary for a United States Senator, which was my first job in Washington, and that Senator has a colleague from the same state who is from the same political party, you end up having a fair amount to do with your counterpart who works for the other Senator.

Such was the case when I was press secretary for the senior Senator from Colorado, Sen. Gordon Allott (R-Co.) and the junior Senator was Senator Peter Dominick (R-Co.) I didn't get along with my counterpart at all. He was unpleasant, uncooperative, and, in my view, incompetent. I soon learned that my predecessor as Sen. Allott's press secretary felt the same way about Sen. Dominick's guy.

After a couple of years, Senator Dominick hired a new press secretary. I was so relieved. He was such a nice guy. He was so easy to work with. He was very competent. His name was Brian Lamb.

Both of us would, in due course, leave the employ of Congress and launch television networks. Mine failed. His has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

THIS IS THE 25TH ANNIVERSARY of Lamb's baby. It is called C-SPAN. The original C-SPAN covered the House of Representatives. I was pleased to be asked by Brian to convince some of conservatives in the House to back the idea of cable coverage of the House. It was an easy sell.

I was one of the first guests on the new network. They had minimal facilities. During my interview the blue curtain behind me came crashing down. It was truly live television. Amazingly, however, from day one there were wall-to-wall phone calls.

Then after C-SPAN worked so well in the House, Brian again asked for my help. He wanted to launch Senate coverage. That was a tough sell. Conservatives such as Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) didn't like the idea. But eventually their opposition was overridden and the second C-SPAN network was launched. Even today more cable systems carry the House coverage than carry Senate coverage. And there is a third C-SPAN channel for covering events, which is only carried on those cable systems with significant capacity. Still, some 34 million people tune in to C-SPAN each week. C-SPAN call-in shows are flooded with calls regardless of the topic or the time of day. Lamb would like a fourth channel to cover the Supreme and other federal courts. But the Chief Justice and many federal judges are opposed.

Lamb, who is President of the network, still hosts programs regularly. He sets the pace. C-SPAN hosts never reveal their political views, never have an agenda, and never badger the guests. If you want to see what Congress really does (both in Committee and in session), if you want to hear guests give their views uninterrupted, in other words if you want to make your own judgments, C-SPAN is for you.

I can tell you as someone who has appeared on all of the networks, I get more e-mails, letters and personal comments when I appear on C-SPAN than with all the others combined. In fact, I seldom turn down a request to appear on C-SPAN whereas I turn down many other requests from other networks because I hate shouting matches where you have to fight to be heard.

BRIAN LAMB HAS DONE THE nation such a great service. I find people so much better informed today than they were in the days when only a select few knew how Congress really operated.

In the 1980s, then-Congressman Bob Walker of Pennsylvania used to make frequent speeches on the House floor. Sometimes he led what are called Special Orders where he requested time, gathered some colleagues of like mind, and talked with them for an hour or two, often in "prime time," since these Special Orders occur after Congress recesses for the day. Walker found himself being treated as a celebrity when he was in airports and other public places. It was then that he knew the power of the medium. He and his close friend Rep. Newt Gingrich organized their colleagues in systematic appearances on the House floor. It was one of the factors that led to Republican control of both houses of Congress in the 1994 elections. The Democrats had become arrogant and the voters could see for themselves what was happening.

Woe unto Republicans who behave the same way. Ever more voters are watching C-SPAN all the time. Voters will see what is going on and they will take it out on the Republicans at the next election. In fact, right now John Zogby, the nation's most accurate pollster, says voters favor Democrats way ahead of Republicans for control of Congress. Republicans are finishing their tenth year of control in the House and they have controlled the Senate for all but a year and a half of the same period.

All of us owe Brian Lamb much gratitude for what he has accomplished. Unlike the Presidents of other networks, who are arrogant to a man, Brian Lamb is a humble, self-effacing gentleman. Thank God nice guys don't always finish last.

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About the Author

Paul M. Weyrich is chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.