Brian Lamb, American Hero, and the Limits of His Achievements

Brian Lamb, the founder of C-Span, has recently announced his retirement. By turning cameras on government, he is a hero of the age of new media, almost a founder for our time. But his very accomplishment shows the limits of what can be achieved by making big government more transparent.

Nevertheless, his achievements are substantial and wholly admirable. Through his efforts, gavel to gavel coverage of the House and Senate is available on television and the internet in real time. All important committee hearings are aired live or as soon as space can be found on one of its channels. Lamb also championed expansion of C-Span into Book TV that covers non-fiction, with a heavy emphasis on politics and American history. Comparative democracy comes in the form of question time at Westminster and other parliaments around the word.

Lamb also set a scrupulously non-partisan tone. Unlike with interviews in the mainstream media and the conservative media that has grown up as an alternative, it is genuinely impossible to infer the political views of any of the interviewers on C-Span. They are relentlessly polite but relentlessly focused on the essentials of the political positions and issues at stake. For four decades Lamb himself has been interviewing people, mostly writers, on his own shows, Booknotes and Q and A—and modeling fairness and courtesy throughout. It is an immense tribute to his energy and dedication that he was willing to conduct an in-depth interview each week while simultaneously running the C-Span network.

Thanks to Lamb, every American can have a ringside seat at our government and the opportunity to put all the drama in its political and historical context. Yet, sadly, it would be hard to say that governance has improved despite the increased transparency. Lamb himself says that the takeaway from his time in Washington is that it is a town where everyone is lying.

You might think that C-Span’s transparency would at least help cut down on lies, because lying politicians would lose credibility. But the brute fact is that despite its excellence, C-Span attracts very few viewers relative to the number of voters. The vast majority of people remain almost wholly ignorant of the policy proposals and quite ignorant even of the mechanisms of government. They are suckers for deception.

And no amount of C-Span programming will change this fact. Public choice teaches that it is rational to be ignorant of politics. A citizen is more likely to die by accident on the way to the polls than for a Presidential election to be so close that they make a difference in the outcome. And keeping up with enough policy to make an informed vote is even harder. Most people have more productive or enjoyable uses of time. For some of us, politics is a hobby and watching C-Span is more compelling than HBO, but I fear that will always be a minority taste.

Thus, Brian Lamb’s heroic failure should remind us that the solution to the dishonesty in government is to limit its reach as well as to increase its transparency. In a limited government, there are fewer things to follow. Moreover, with a limited government, other forms of social ordering like the market would dominate. There, at least one’s decision about where to work and what to buy does not depend of the views of millions of others. A buyer or a worker is thus much less likely to be deceived by sellers and bosses than by politicians. If everyone were like Brian Lamb, we might profitably have a bigger government, but Lamb is no ordinary citizen.

Reader Discussion

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on April 30, 2019 at 10:06:27 am

That is indeed the right lesson to be learned. Well said.

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Juliana Geran Pilon
on April 30, 2019 at 11:50:41 am

Brian Lamb is a treasure. He focused on clarity instead of agreement. That is what made him a good news man. He let the facts speak for themselves.

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on April 30, 2019 at 12:13:48 pm

John McGinnis's tribute to Brian Lamb is well-deserved and elegantly written.

Prof. McGinnis rightly draws the lesson that transparency is not enough to secure liberty; government power must also be limited by effective constitutional means. Transparency may deter corruption in the ordinary venal sense; it may be less effective in deterring tyranny which, lamentably, finds its open advocates, even in our time.

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Joseph A. Morris
on April 30, 2019 at 13:36:38 pm

A TV network--call it S-span--devoted to Congressional staffs would be far more compelling, and illuminating, than one devoted to the elected representatives. Sort of a documentary version of Yes, Minister.

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on May 01, 2019 at 00:06:57 am

Not to mention the airing of voices of true dissent, particularly with the morning call-in show, and the broadcast of lectures and forums which would call into question the sacred cows of officialdom surrounding such matters as the Kennedy assassination, the 9/11 attacks and the like. Also, in wartime C-Span would air the news reports coming from the countries being attacked.

I'm sorry to say however that there is considerably less of all of this on C-span in recent times. The fact that Lamb opens the WSJ piece saying everybody lies in D.C. tells me that he still gets it, but the network likely came under increasing pressure from our American oligarchs, which is why it has been toned down of late.

Also, the bias of the morning call-in hosts is becoming more and more evident. But no one could come close to matching Lamb's Sphinx-like poker face when concealing their leanings. My best guess is that he is an independent, which is what every true-blue American ought to be! It is what we celebrate on July 4th, is it not?

My best wishes for a happy retirement for Brian Lamb, but he will be missed on the tube.

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Ron O
on May 01, 2019 at 00:36:14 am

I'd guess a person might learn SOMETHING about public policy by listening to speeches in Congress. But I suspect many other forums might prove more educational. Congressmen speak to PERSUADE, and only engage in education to the extent that doing so facilitates the persuasion. Where obfuscation and lying facilitate persuasion, Congressmen are quite willing to do that, too.

I suspect the book interviews provide greater insights. But I count myself among those who don't watch C-Span (or much other TV), so I don't really know.

(Likewise, I find much of PBS's The Newhour to be boring. Yes, they "go to the source, --for example, inviting campaign spokesmen to articulate a candidate's positions. But this inevitably proves to be a spin. After the "official interview," the host will sometimes turn to an "analyst" to provide context, which inevitably proves more enlightening. It appears that the purpose of hearing from official spokespeople is to reassure viewers that the analyst is not entirely off-base in characterizing a campaign's actions.

Even if the spokespeople are "authoritative," the rarely prove adept at providing context.)

and I inevitably end up questioning the purpose of hearing from the campaign spokesmen at all.

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on May 01, 2019 at 02:13:01 am

Brian Lamb seems like a nice and capable guy, who built a public affairs network useful to the small minority of the population that follows government and political issues closely. Compared to other news organizations, Lamb and his network are quite fair and even-handed - though, when I watched C-Span regularly (which hasn't been for a while), I sensed that the C-Span interviewers worked from an implicit 90s-"moderate"-Democrat/centrist-RINO/USA Today perspective. And of course, Lamb deserves our respect for his military service.

But to call Lamb a "hero" or a "national treasure" based on C-Span seems a trifle over the top.

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Image of djf
on May 01, 2019 at 10:05:36 am

C-Span has always been part of my diet. I fear that a MSM herd mentality may dominate C-Span after he retires. The small C-Span ad reflects this in the choice of personalities that are displayed.
Book TV and the History TV are a real gem in expanding a viewer's depth although some of the book fairs are highly biased in their choice of speakers. I don't know if that reflects on the ruling clique in the selection process or the sales in that local market.

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on May 01, 2019 at 14:27:40 pm

An unrecognized strength of Lamb’s is his interviewing, thinking mainly of his interviews on Booknotes. I consider him one of the best, if not the best, at this skill of any I’ve listened to or watched. The article notes the impossibility of discerning his personal political stance, and that’s one big plus. But more importantly, he knew that he wasn’t the show - it was the person he was interviewing. He asked short, to the point questions then got out of the way and let the interviewee respond. “Why did you write this book?”, etc. Yet he drew more out of his subjects than other interviewers would have, simply by giving them room to talk. It’s truly a forgotten skill among the current media.

Contrast this with, say, a Bill O’Reilly who barely let his subjects get a word in edgewise (granted, different format and extreme example, but still). You’re thinking “shut up Bill, I want to hear what he has to say”. Lamb’s interviewing skill is unrivaled by anyone currently on C-SPAN or anywhere else.

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on May 03, 2019 at 09:50:53 am

[…] John O. McGinnis applauds C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb. […]

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.