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C-SPAN's Brian Lamb, master of nonpartisanship, stepping down

March 19, 2012 |  3:37 pm

Brian Lamb of C-SPAN is stepping downBrian Lamb, the onetime news reporter who built C-SPAN into a cable television mainstay and a bastion of political nonpartisanship, announced Monday that he is turning operation of the outlet over to two of his top lieutenants.

Lamb’s 33-year tenure as creator and guiding force behind C-SPAN covers the period from the early days of cable television to the current multi-channel universe in which most channels apply considerable spin to their subjects.

Lamb, 70, said he plans to continue hosting “Q&A,” his Sunday interview program, to take a teaching job and to advise his two successors as executive chairman of the C-SPAN board. The new chief executives, Rob Kennedy and Susan Swain, have both worked at the outlet since the 1980s and served together, most recently, in the twin roles of president and chief operating officer.

"If you are looking from the outside at what we do, maybe it seems a little bit weird," Lamb said in an interview Monday. "Everyone else is about making money and the emphasis is on personalities and, nowadays, it's so much an emphasis on having a point of view. That's just not what we do.”

The station began offering live coverage of the U.S. House of Representatives 33 years ago Monday, eventually adding channels for the Senate (through C-SPAN2) and for public events and hearings (via C-SPAN3.)

The outlets remained rare in the U.S. media for their relentlessly non-ideological tone, including a regular call-in show (simulcast on some radio stations) in which C-SPAN hosts fielded calls from both Democrats and Republicans.

Lamb and C-SPAN have been leaders in pushing for more access to public proceedings. The station has repeatedly asked, for instance, to be allowed to broadcast arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court.

That has never been allowed. But there is progress. The court has agreed to release daily audio recording of next week's arguments about President Barack Obama's healthcare law.

Even on more pedestrian cases, the high court now releases audio of its public sessions at the end of each week. "We used to have to wait until the end of that session, plus six months," Lamb recalled. "These are ad hoc decisions by each chief justice. We send a lot of requests. A lot of them are turned down but some aren't. You never know until you ask.”

Lamb said that some government watchers were surprised back in the 1970s when a traditionalist, House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill, cleared the way for filming on the floor of the House.

But progress on other fronts can be daunting. Congressional leaders to this day maintain control of the cameras on the floors of the House and Senate. Despite repeated requests, C-SPAN has not been able to install its own cameras — in order to show lawmakers responding to their colleagues and to show wider shots, which might occasionally reveal a largely empty chamber.

"Each time there is a change in leadership, we ask again," Lamb said with a slight chuckle.

President George W. Bush presented Lamb with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007, citing him for his "dedication to a transparent political system and to the free flow of ideas."

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) released a statement Monday praising Lamb for his “unquestioned integrity and profound commitment to making government accountable to the people, [which] have made a lasting contribution to our democracy.”

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 — James Rainey

twitter.com/latimesrainey

Photo: C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb poses with a portable TV tuned to the channel he created. Credit: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times

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