C-SPAN Founder and CEO Brian Lamb|
Thursday, April 20, 2000; 11 a.m. EDT
C-SPAN, "the political network of record," has been required viewing for politicians, consultants, political junkies, students and teachers for more than 20 years, with gavel-to-gavel coverage of Congress and the political process from stump speeches and party conventions to panel discussions and meetings. Supported by the cable industry, C-SPAN now offers two 24-hour channels and a 50,000-watt radio station, allowing consumers to tune in to public affairs programs from "Morning Journal and "Booknotes" to "Road to the White House." An estimated 22 million Americans watch the network every week.
C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb has been the company's chief executive officer since its beginning in 1979. Lamb worked as a journalist in Indiana and Washington, D.C., where he was a reporter for UPI Audio, Senate press secretary and White House staffer focusing on telecommunications policy. Lamb, along with members of the C-SPAN staff, has written a new book, "Who's Buried in Grant's Tomb?", a guidebook to presidential gravesites.
Lamb joined "Free Media" to talk about C-SPAN, covering politics and Campaign 2000 on Thursday, April 20. The transcript follows:
Free Media: Good morning, Mr. Lamb, and welcome. In addition to Congress, C-SPAN covers a huge number and variety of events, from panel discussions to campaign rallies. How do you decide which events to attend?
Brian Lamb: We have a staff of producers who meet twice a day and decide, based often on balance what to cover. The word "balance" plays an important role in everything we do. Most days, I would say 75 percent of what we cover would be obvious to everyone. The tricky part, of course is the other 25 percent. That's why you have editors and producers they make that decision.
Arlington, Va.: I'm interested in your motivations to start C-SPAN. I've recently heard that you were at a Washington party and wished your parents could see such a gathering and therefore, got the idea. But, having seen you several times around Pentagon City, you seem kind of like a loner. What's the answer? Also, the only feature I can't live without is Prime Minister's Question Time so please keep it on. Thanks and keep up the good work.
Brian Lamb: When you see me around Pentagon City and conclude that I'm a loner is that I'm a bachelor, and often I eat my evening meal there on my way home. The most important thing in my life is my friends, and I hope you haven't gotten the wrong impression.
My main motivation for being involved with C-SPAN from the beginning was to give viewers a choice in television. The medium used to be controlled by three corporations in New York, with only three channels. Now you can get up to 200 channels. Now people are literally voting with the dial, and they're not watching the kinds of programming experts say they should be watching.
Freedom of choice should be just what it says freedom of choice, and that choice shouldn't be limited to three. In addition, the whole mission of C-SPAN is to cover political events with no comment or commercial interruption, giving the viewer the opportunity to make up his or her own mind.
Washington, D.C.: How do you think the 24-hour presence of the media has changed the way presidential campaigns operate and the way presidential candidates think?
Brian Lamb: First of all, the people who watch the 24-hour news and public affairs channel on cable make up a very small part of the electorate overall. But they're often the people that are writing the articles for the newspapers and wire services and commenting on radio and television.
The politician is always keeping an eye on both audiences. For lack of a better term, the "junkie" who can't get enough of politics, versus the other 90 percent who catch it on the run. It's changed it always was the case that reporters who followed presidential candidates would hear the same message day in and day out. When they became bored with the campaign, they began to look for interesting stories that often the candidates didn't like. In some ways, the same thing has happened with television.
We just cover the speeches and the rallies and the debates, but that's our job. Networks like CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, have to have an audience in order to stay in business. They're driven by ratings. In order to do that, they're always looking for a dramatic angle. So for lack of a better explanation, I suggest that 24-hour has created a bit of schizophrenia among political campaigns. But in the end, most politicians are keeping their eye on that general audience, far away from the political center, and what happens, what people know when they go to the polls in the general election in the fall.
Washington, D.C.: As a journalist, how do you feel about the fact that Gore has not had a press conference or spoken on the record in over two months? What does this mean to you and his campaign?
Brian Lamb: As a journalist, we naturally want these candidates to be as available as possible. But they are entitled to make their media decisions any way they want. And as an observer of this system, having lived in Washington for 34 years, =I'm not sure you can conclude that more exposure is better for every politician. Sometimes the less seen the better, and I don't mean that in a negative way.
Ronald Reagan spent 345 days of his presidency almost a full year on his ranch near Santa Barbara. It never heard him. Bill Clinton is probably on this network giving a speech almost every day of his life for the past seven and a half years, and it apparently never hurt him.
Know it frustrates us when we want them to come on our shows, sit for interviews or meet the press. But in the end it's their decision, and it all adds up when people go into that voting booth. A case can be made that the only thing that matters for Al Gore, George Bush, Pat Buchanan, Ralph Nader or anybody else is the economy and how they do in those three debates in October of this year.
Free Media: Your new book, "Who's Buried in Grant's Tomb?" is a guide to presidential gravesites including the future sites for still-living presidents. Did you visit every gravesite, or did you and your staff divide the trips? What prompted the idea for the project?
Brian Lamb: I have visited all of the presidential gravesites, and and 39 of 40 vice presidential gravesites. The only one I have to go, and it's the only one because I haven't had time to go, is Hubert Humphrey's in Minnesota.
Got the idea for the trips to the gravesites and for the book from Richard Norton Smith, a historian and director of the Gerald R. Ford Museum and Library in Grand Rapids, Mich. He began his tour of presidential gravesites when he was nine years old. He told me about in the "Booknotes" we did in 1993, and that was what sent me on my search.
I enjoyed all of them, for different reasons. I enjoyed the Andrew Johnson gravesite in Greenville, Tenn., because with all the problems he had, he still asked to be buried wrapped in the American flag, with a copy of the Constitution under his head, and that seemed to be quite patriotic. The most idyllic of all of them probably would be the Calvin Coolidge site in Plymouth Notch, Vt. It's a very simple gravesite, which is just a couple of blocks from the village where he grew up and where he was sworn in as president when Warren Harding died in the middle of the night.
Arlington, Va.: Love your work!
C-SPAN's "American Presidents" series delved a bit into PBS territory i.e., documentary-style series. How did the series come about, and do you see more like it in the future?
Brian Lamb: Actually, our "American Presidents" life portrait series was one of many we've done since 1984. One year we went to all of the state capitols. One year we televised a recreation of the Lincoln-Douglass debates in the seven communities in Illinois where they took place. One year we went to the 55 towns that Alexis de Tocqueville visited during his trip to the United States.
So the "American Presidents" series is just another of many we've done, and we will be doing something similar on another topic in 2001. Our "American Presidents" series grew out of suggestions from four different producers as part of a company-wide contest to make that decision, which we're in the middle of right now, and we've got far more suggestions than we'll ever have time to do.
One of the main things that differ in our series compared to other documentary-type approaches to American history is the involvement of the caller. That's just a very critical difference, because it's spontaneous, you call on the expertise of people who don't necessarily do this for a living, and it's a very critical part of what we do. It's live, on location, and we try to hear from a lot of different voices in addition to the usual people who appear on television.
I'm a big fan of both C-SPAN TV and Radio. Thank you very much for gracing us with this fantastic programming. My question is this: Is there any chance that y'all may syndicate C-SPAN Radio or expand it in some fashion so it is available to those outside of the Beltway? Thanks again for your many contributions.
Brian Lamb: Hopefully, this time next year, people who live in the lower 48 states will be able to get C-SPAN on their car radios through the new, Sirious satellite radio system. A couple of months later, we will also be carried on the other new satellite system planned for launch some time in the middle of 2001, called XM Radio.
New York, N.Y.: From what you've seen on many campaign trails, what makes for the best candidates? Who are the ones who really make you think, "That guy is going to be a good president," or at least "That guy's got what it takes to win"?
Brian Lamb: I've learned in my 34 years in Washington that a successful politician is clearly in the eye or eyes of the beholder. I think most people are looking for someone they believe and feel is being honest with them, someone who can tell their story in a way that's not talking down to people. I could go on, but for everything that matters to me or to the person sitting next to you, the economy is probably the number-one thing on people's minds, and that drives so much about politicians that you see in front of you.
Tip O'Neill used to talk about the 3 percent issues. And if you're one of those who feels particularly strongly about an issue, it doesn't matter what a person looks like or what their image is. You're affected very directly by this exact position they take. I think what I'm saying is that I don't know any more than you do, say anything more than you can. It gets back to everybody, and everybody looks at it from their own perspective.
Free Media: Convention coverage is being cut from network budgets and publications all the time. In fact, C-SPAN is one of the only places where you can get gavel-to-gavel coverage. What do you think of this trend, and are conventions something that no longer mean that much to people?
Brian Lamb: I suspect the fact that C-SPAN will cover these conventions gavel-to-gavel speaks first and foremost to the marketplace. We are not in this to make money, do not have ratings and literally are allowed not to care whether there's one viewer or a million. If I were in the same business to make money, I would make the same decisions to cut back, probably, and in some cases wouldn't cover the conventions at all unless they made news. It's very hard for people, especially my age, to get over the fact that the commercial television networks will never be all things to all people again. And they shouldn't be. In my opinion, the big mistake was made in the 1940s and '50s, when people in this town decided there would only be three networks, and in order for them to keep their licenses, they had to do 10 percent public affairs. And the executives at these networks, in order to keep their licenses, were quite willing to give away 10 percent when they were able to make so much money on the other 90 percent.
So in my humble opinion, people in our business would save a lot of energy if they stopped worrying about whether or not these conventions would be covered gavel-to-gavel. If they were doing something at these conventions that the general public thought was interesting, they would demand it, they would watch it, and it wouldn't be an issue. But they aren't demanding it, they aren't watching it, and you can understand why people who are in business to make money and who are no longer required to do the 10 percent public affairs are cutting back.
Finally, I have never understood why people in the television business think everybody else should cover the same thing at the same time. Choice is choice. If the New York Times and The Washington Post both had the same stories in the same place every day, people would think they were crazy.
Free Media: That was our last question today for C-SPAN founder and CEO Brian Lamb. Thanks so much to Mr. Lamb, and to everyone who joined us.
It's been a big week at the Supreme Court, and the oral argument in the Miranda case has attracted quite a bit of attention. Talk about the case, this week's business at the court and the issues coming up with Post Supreme Court reporter Joan Biskupic in "Holding Court," tomorrow at 11 a.m. EDT.
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