It was in the days before the Internet, before 24/7 news coverage, and it was 7 o'clock on a Saturday morning. And Brian Lamb, the creator of C-SPAN and the host of a weekly roundtable discussion with journalists, had somehow already managed to read virtually every major newspaper in the country—along with a few other publications.
It was always a little daunting and somewhat embarrassing to be on Brian's Saturday morning show. It was an honor, of course, to be asked to join in on what was always a serious and respectful discussion. Brian astonished all of us by making references to stories in our own newspapers that morning (most of us hadn't been able to read even our own out-of-town newspapers by that hour, or even our own stories). He was up on every topic and knew the most arcane details of legislation under consideration on the Hill. He treated callers with respect, and knew which ones were regulars and which ones were new questioners. The questioners were also respectful and remarkably well-informed. I was always amazed when we would get a call from a viewer in Hawaii, where it was just before 4 in the morning (Were they up late or up early? I'll always wonder.). Brian Lamb, professional, informed, and courteous, was a big part of the reason for the demeanor of the callers. Bipartisan doesn't even begin to describe his approach. He listened to everyone, didn't goad or insult viewers, and had the nonjudgmental expression that must have made him a phenomenal poker player. And his decision to turn over operations of C-SPAN to two deputies is a reminder of how positive—or negative—the media can be in affecting the national discourse.
Television news—or news and commentary—has acquired an aggressive and combative tone in our Attention Deficit Disorder political culture. Public relations officers at think tanks will report that their knowledgeable and erudite guests are not welcome on cable TV unless they are willing to get into a verbal joust with someone. The dialogue becomes less about the details of an issue and more of a Sharks versus Jets standoff, where the "liberal" or "conservative" moniker is assigned to a position not based on the substance itself, but on the people who espouse it. It reduces serious matters to cheap personality conflicts, often involving personalities who in fact are much more substantive than they appear in brief word-fights.
Brian Lamb and his network have never given in to that kind of marketing, and we should be grateful to them for that. It's true that C-SPAN callers now include a smattering of ranters and ravers of all political stripes. But for the most part, the questions and the dialogue are serious and respectful. That tone comes from Brian Lamb. Thankfully, Lamb will continue to host his Sunday Q&A program, and his influence will undoubtedly continue at C-SPAN. It's a tone all of us, in the media, in politics, and in the voting public, should emulate.