Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Brian Lamb stepping down from CSPAN

It's a bit off-topic, but I want to share a few thoughts about Brian Lamb and C-SPAN.
  Brian Lamb started C-SPAN, arranging to get access to the live camera feed of  the U.S. House of Representatives 33 years ago. In those early years, when the House was not in session, C-SPAN supplemented that coverage with interviews and call-in shows (often with guests).  Brian Lamb did many of them. In an era of increasing partisanship, when other cable news networks promoted shows with co-hosts yelling (figuratively) at one another, endlessly repeating the day's talking points, Brian Lamb was the epitome of what news interviewers should be: smart, polite, and non-ideological to an extreme.  Most importantly, Lamb felt that the role of the interviewer was to elicit understanding - with short, direct questions about simple facts.  And if the guest didn't provide an answer, then he'd politely ask the question again.  C-SPAN quickly became a staple of the cable industry- I think more due to the interviews and call-in shows than the live coverage of the House, which, for the most part, is unrelenting boredom.
  And C-SPAN's success in that area was more due to the high standard set by Brian Lamb for an interviewer/host.  It certainly wasn't the big name guests - you would see more scholars than star pundits or politicians.  (Probably because the latter knew Brian would keep focused on asking short, direct questions that would end up embarrassing them).  One of my favorites, often employed when a caller or guest said something outrageous, was a simple "Where did you get that information?"  It was never asked as a challenge or rebuke, just a simple inquiry, and always asked with the same calm neutral demeanor.  I recall multiple instances when the two guests would visibly react to caller statements, but the C-SPAN interviewer/host would maintain that neutral poker face, calmly ask a question or two, and then thank the caller for their contribution.
  The high standard established by Brian Lamb is regrettably becoming unique in the world of news and public affairs.  On cable,news and public affairs, the host is the star - and increasingly someone with little traditional news background, selected for their political connections or ability to be controversial.  And traditional network news has decided that emotions and story-telling is more important than facts in context.  We even have PBS helping to fund a database of people with "stories to tell" that news organizations can tap instead of "just reporting facts."
  David Brooks, in a piece for the Weekly Standard titled "Brian Lamb's America", summarized the unique role of C-SPAN:
C-SPAN is factual in a world grown theoretical. It is slow in a world growing more hyper. It is word-oriented in an era that is visually sophisticated. With its open phone lines, it is genuinely populist in a culture that preaches populism more than it practices it. And occupying its unique niche -- C-SPAN is funded by the cable industry to cover Congress and public events -- it has managed to perform feats of civic education that are unmatched by better-funded institutions, such as the History Channel, PBS, the Smithsonian, or the multi-billion-dollar foundations.
   If only this approach wasn't all that unique.  I'd say we'd all miss Brian Lamb, but he'll continue hosting a Sunday interview program, and will continue teaching at Purdue University.  And I will keep hoping that more in the news industry will pick up on the value of his interviewing style.  You may not make a name for yourself, but you'll have a chance to make the same kind of impact on society that Brian Lamb has.

Sources - C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb steps down after 34 years,  Washington Post
Brian Lamb's AmericaThe Weekly Standard

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