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Editorial: Out Like a Lion

C-SPAN founder and CEO Brian Lamb, who is giving up the reins of the public affairs cable network he has guided for more than three decades, likes to tell this story:

Lamb was once offered the opportunity to sit with iconic radio broadcaster Paul Harvey at a hall of fame induction ceremony in Chicago. Being from Indiana and having grown up listening to Harvey, Lamb jumped at the chance. “I had never met him and obviously he was a giant in the industry, so I said, ‘Hey, that’s terrific.’”

Lamb went to Chicago, put on his tux, and was introduced to Harvey, who stood “in all his regalness. And Paul Harvey looks at me,” says Lamb, “takes my hand and says, 'You know, what you have done for this country is just extraordinary, how you have brought people together with the founding of ESPN.’” Lamb figured it had just been a slip, and later told Harvey he had been trying to get him for an hour-long profi le interview. “Why would a sports network be interested in interviewing someone like me?” Harvey asked.

“I was crushed,” says Lamb. “Paul Harvey had no idea who I was.” With apologies to the late radio icon, he must have been confused. In this business, not recognizing Lamb puts you in the vast minority.

Brian Lamb helped change the face of television and the nation’s perception of politics. Lamb came to Washington and found it fascinating, and he thought the country might think so too, provided they had a chance to see it in action. Working in his favor, the national appetite had already been whetted by the Watergate hearings on PBS, which showed just how fascinating some of that sausagemaking could be. Lamb came up with the idea for the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network in 1975; the switch was turned on four years later.

With C-SPAN, Lamb made the daily business of politics into something worth viewing, combining his love of Washington’s inner workings and his journalist’s passion for telling the story to others. In another life, he had been the Washington bureau chief for a cable trade publication. Through C-SPAN, his vocation became his calling.

A CBS Radio White House correspondent tweeted last week that in honor of Lamb’s announcement, the Supreme Court should allow cameras into its oral arguments, something Lamb and C-SPAN have been pushing for years. That is unlikely, but it would indeed be fitting.

Lamb is not disappearing by any means. He has a three-year contract to remain with the network to help strategize and continue to proselytize about the value of letting the people see their government in action, or “inaction,” as the case may be.

Thankfully, C-SPAN is more than Brian Lamb, as he is the first to point out. The nonprofit has depended on the cable industry for support from the outset. Without the initial seed money of $25,000 and continued backing for 35 years, says Lamb, “we wouldn’t be here. This whole world is pegged toward the bottom line, and this place has never made a dime for anybody. The industry has spent a billion dollars in these 35 years for a product that is nothing but public service.”

And it has been money incredibly well spent, as has Lamb’s career in sharing his vision for open government with the world.