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A C-Span kind of man


WASHINGTON - In his 22 years on television in this mecca of self-promotion, Brian Lamb has not once uttered his own name.

In his hour-long interview show "Booknotes" each week, Lamb appears on camera for about four minutes. His guest gets the other 56.

And when Capitol Hill's gossipy social season rolls around, Lamb is not among the Congressmen, Cabinet secretaries and celebrity journalists who gather to drop names and rub elbows.

If you're wondering how anyone could possibly run a TV network this way in an environment so conducive to bluster over substance, then you just don't understand Lamb or C-Span, the cable network he founded in 1979.

You'd hardly be alone in your ignorance. At certain hours of certain days, when C-Span cameras lock onto members of Congress droning about bureaucrats and trade quotas, Lamb's troika of channels - C-Spans 1 and 2, plus the new C-Span 3 - may rank among the most unwatched in America.

Even when things get more interesting you're liable to find a talking head on all three screens - someone either making a speech, joining a discussion or answering questions, all presented in the TV equivalent of a plain brown wrapper. No fancy graphics or catchy logos. No whooshing sound effects or blaring trumpets. No chatty panel of Sam, Cokie and George to tell us what we've just seen.

This kind of television tends to be an acquired taste. But the estimated 28 million viewers who've developed an appetite should know that Lamb, 59, is the main reason C-Span looks and sounds the way it does.

"He's the tone-setter," says John Splaine, a University of Maryland professor who gets paid to help keep C-Span as objective as possible. "He knew exactly what he wanted to do, and he wanted to be fair and accurate."

As tone setters go, Lamb offers a subdued monotone. He has been called the Jack Webb of journalism, a "just the facts" straight man in an opinionated crowd of ambushers and noisemakers. On screen, his persona is as flat and colorless as his home state of Indiana, a pale shade of bland, although around the office he's more like a collegial headmaster, chatty and amiable, yet demanding objectivity from co-workers even when they talk politics by the water cooler.(We interrupt this story for a brief public service announcement, a disclaimer on Lamb's behalf: He hates it when journalists take this approach, of telling C-Span's story through his own. "I tend to be the one who gets attention, but when you think about it I'm not really very important in the mix," he says. Which is about what you'd expect from a guy who won't let announcers say their names on the air, even when their name is Brian Lamb. Others, however, insist that Lamb was the indispensable man of C-Span's formative years, and that he continues to set an unwavering course. Now, back to our regular programming).

Lamb got C-Span going when he was a Washington bureau chief for Cablevision magazine in the late 1970s. He didn't much like what he saw on the three major networks or the way they were monopolizing nationwide news delivery, capturing about 65 percent of the viewing public with their nightly reports.

"They became enormously powerful, in my opinion too powerful, in a country that prided itself on diversity and choice."

He also didn't like much about the way the media and the government cozied up to each other in Washington. Lamb had come to town in 1965, a Purdue University graduate who'd joined the Navy and taken a public affairs job at the Pentagon, where he got his first look at this odd relationship.

Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was busy in those days shading the truth about what was going on in Vietnam, and the news media was helping, by agreeing to attribute his weekly statements to "U.S. officials." That left McNamara unaccountable for disinformation, and left the public in the dark.

Such practices persist, and they're still a pet peeve for Lamb. When reviewing the day's newspaper highlights on a recent "Washington Journal," C-Span's morning news and phone-in show, he referred to a story quoting a "senior administration official."

"We may never know who the senior official is," he said in a neutral tone, flipping to the next story.

He left the Pentagon in 1967, taking a job at a TV station in his hometown of Lafayette, Ind., but the next year he was back in Washington as a wire service radio reporter. He later worked as a press aide to a U.S. Senator, a staffer in the telecommunications office of the Nixon White House, and then as the Cablevision bureau chief.

His idea was to get the cable industry, just coming into its own thanks to deregulation, to foot the bill and provide channel space for a public-service network offering live broadcasts of proceedings on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. Let the public watch the legislative sausage being made and judge for itself.

And beyond that? Well, C-Span would do much more someday, Lamb always believed. But it's hard to imagine what made him so optimistic when you look back to its humble beginnings.

On a shoestring

"We had no cameras [those belonged to Congress], no tape recorders, no nothing," Lamb says. It was just him and three employees in an apartment on the Virginia side of the Potomac. They had one phone line and shared satellite time with basketball games and professional wrestling, working with an annual budget of $450,000. Initially some cable systems wanted nothing to do with them.

Thus was the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network born on March 19, 1979, with a broadcast from the House floor. Only 3.5 million households were hooked up, and it's impossible to say how many dozens actually tuned in.

But before long this bland cable beast was growing like some giant mushroom in the dark - buying cameras, adding employees, beginning a phone-in show, creating a second channel with broadcasts from the U.S. Senate, adding programming from committee hearings, state governments, the British House of Commons.

Still, no one was sure if anyone was really paying attention until the mid-'80s, when an obscure Georgia congressman named Newt Gingrich began stepping regularly before House cameras to deliver diatribes against the Democrats. The House chamber was often empty at the time, but Gingrich wasn't speaking to his colleagues. He was speaking to the viewers of C-Span, and when he began to gain a measure of fame, everyone else in Washington at last awakened to the presence of the big mushroom at their feet.

Perhaps C-Span viewers weren't numerous, but they were keeping up with the issues, and they were voting - about 90 percent of them, according to surveys - and today C-Span is available to 78 million households on 6,500 cable systems, broadcasting around the clock on three channels (C-Span 3 is just beginning to proliferate).

About 275 staffers fill its Capitol Hill offices, working with an annual budget of $40 million. Cable companies still foot the bill, at a rate of pennies per subscriber, and C-Span now finds itself quietly at the vanguard of a cable news revolution, continuously feeding a small but significant portion of the public with an insatiable appetite for information.

"My main goal in life was to open the process up so everybody could be heard in one way or another," Lamb says. "And that's happened.

"We started in March '79, CNN in June 1980, MSNBC and Fox about five years ago."

The man who set all this in motion has a C-Span sort of life - subdued and uncluttered, with few frills. He is a bachelor living alone in an Arlington townhouse, an early-to-bed, early-to-rise type who watches little television.

On weekends, he is not a party hearty guy, especially if the party is one of those Washington bashes populated by the famous and the powerful - media and government stars commingling their wattage for charity, or to roast one another, or just to have a few laughs and share all the good stuff they won't tell us on the air. Not a healthy environment, Lamb says:

"Here, everybody's going somewhere. They're ambitious, they're trying to control their image. And you can't have, very often, a genuine friendship with anybody in public life. You can't trust it.

"I've never received a call from a public official that I thought was anything but official. You can't ever let your guard down and think that this is a friendship, and it shouldn't be anyway. I believe strongly in the line between journalism and elected officialdom. There's too much crossing of that line, too much high-fiving, because a lot of people in journalism have to play that game, they think, in order to get people to appear on their shows."

He comes by such feelings partly from where he grew up, in Lafayette. It is a straightforward sort of town in a straightforward sort of state, and when Lamb contrasts it to Washington he decides:

"I like Indiana better. I like the people better. I like the attitudes better. When I'm not at work, I fall back on my old friends. I go back to my friends from Indiana, my original friends, because they're more genuine, down to earth. They're not angling for anything."

Perhaps nowhere does he display his Indiana style more clearly than on "Booknotes," the weekly interview show where he chats with authors of non-fiction. Besides being a means of self-education - he has read more than 600 books for the show since its first broadcast in 1989, which now line the walls of his office in chronological order - "Booknotes" has become Lamb's signature show, especially since he's host of "Washington Journal" only on Fridays.

Not that it's a very flashy signature. On a recent episode Lamb didn't even appear on camera until the fifth minute, while asking the fifth question. Even then his name blipped onto the screen for barely a second, then disappeared for the rest of the show.

It's not about him

It's not modesty. He's making a point. As he said in a 1999 interview with the Organization of American Historians, "I don't want you to keep saying to yourself, 'Why won't he get out of my way? I want to get a chance to watch the author talk about the book.' "

His interviewing technique is to avoid questions that will attract attention to what he knows and to prefer questions that will focus on what the writer knows. The blunt simplicity of some questions can seem to take the approach to extremes (a caller once suggested he title his autobiography "Who Was Abraham Lincoln?"), but more often he seems to be following the advice of Mark Twain, who pointed out, "He who asks a question is a fool for a moment. He who never asks a question is a fool forever."

The all-time highlight of this style occurred during Lamb's interview with author Martin Gilbert, biographer of Winston Churchill. Gilbert had just explained that as a young officer in World War I, Churchill had been "accused of buggery, and, you know, that's, you know, a terrible accusation."

"Why was he accused of buggery and what is it?" Lamb asked.

Gilbert: "You don't know what buggery is?"

Lamb: "Define it, please."

Gilbert: "Oh dear. Well, I - I'm sorry. I thought the word we - buggery is what used to be called a - the - an unnatural act of the Oscar Wilde type is how it was actually phrased in the euphemism of the British papers. It's - you don't know what buggery is?"

Lamb seems almost sheepish when asked about the moment, but that didn't keep him from including a clip of it on the "Book- notes" 10th anniversary show.

"Most people who are well read would know what buggery is, I guess," Lamb says. "But you know what I've learned about people? There are more people like me around than there are like intellectuals in our country. My curiosity level is higher than most people, but I am really of average intellect and average knowledge, and so, when I ask a question, I'm asking for the average person."

Despite all this "average guy" stuff, some might find Lamb's disdain for Washington's pushy and ambitious ways ironic, given the size of his current empire. Plot the growth of C-Span on a graph and the ascending line looks like one of those charts used by conservatives to illustrate the runaway growth of big government. It has become an institution, the place where, every morning during "Washington Journal," all of America can watch the sky grow light behind the Capitol dome looming outside the studio's picture window. As if to drive home the point, the current issue of Washingtonian magazine ranks Lamb sixth on its list of the city's Top 50 Journalists.

But Lamb has gone about his empire-building in a fairly un-Washington way - quietly, modestly and largely in the background. Plus, how many other broadcast giants here pay such close attention to objectivity, to the point of hiring a college professor to keep them on their toes?

That would be Splaine, a professor of media literacy. He occasionally raps C-Span's knuckles on minor details (why did the camera angle on the Republican talking head differ from the one used for the Democratic talking head?), but his most important role is an annual weeklong workshop he runs for up to 50 C-Span employees at a time. Lamb got the idea after independently attending one of Splaine's events 15 years ago.

"It's really a very careful and conscientious organization," Splaine says. "They get concerned with things that others wouldn't even think about. They will debate for hours what to call something. Like during the gulf war. Was it 'Operation Desert Storm'? Well, no, that was the Pentagon's name for it. 'Events in the Middle East?' Well, no, that's too mealy-mouthed. They hardly ever use the word 'scandal,' because that's making a judgment."

Splaine was the guy who pointed out that, on their phone-in shows, C-Span was fielding a disproportionate number of conservatives. C-Span responded by setting up separate lines for Democrats, Republicans and Independents, then alternating callers.

But if Lamb is proudest of any one thing, it is that C-Span offers a voice for the voiceless. Even callers who seem one step removed from the asylum generally can have their say before Lamb and other hosts answer with a neutral, "OK, thanks."

"In fact, this is one of the few places anywhere in society where Congressmen and -women are told by our viewers exactly what they think," Lamb says. "That's why so many of them won't do the call-in show, because when they go on other programs, even though they get tough questions they know [the questions] are only going to go so far. Nobody will call them a liar, a cheater, stealer. They won't get hit right between the eyes with questions about their sexual exploits.

"I think it's a much truer reflection of what's going on in the country than [what you get] watching the Sunday morning talk shows, for instance. That's inside the beltway, what we in the media care about. I was struck [that] after the first week of George W. Bush's presidency, everybody in the media ... said what a wonderful week it was, he was terrific, he charmed everybody. Our call-in shows never got away from, I'm still angry about Florida, I think the election was stolen, or, the opposite view of that, I love George Bush and he's going to be a great president."

In watching Lamb as he calmly shepherds along callers, you will be hard-pressed to detect his own political leanings. Republican Sen. John McCain joked while appearing on a Lamb phone-in last July that he, too, had been unable to solve the mystery of the man's party affiliation.

"Actually," McCain quipped to a caller, "I think he's a vegetarian."

Lamb moved on to the next item without saying a word.

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