11/27/2012 11:36 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

2012 Manhattan Institute Social Entrepreneurship Awards Honors C-SPAN's Brian Lamb

It's not at all clear these days what to expect from someone accepting a $100,000 prize for their work over a lifetime. One could certainly be forgiven for looking back pridefully on such an occasion. As it turned out, however, Brian Lamb, the founder of the C-SPAN network, is a man of the sort of deep modesty that most successful people in this era of self-promotion don't even bother to feign anymore. Noting the award he was accepting from the Manhattan Institute -- the William E. Simon Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Social Entrepreneurship -- was bound up in ideas originating with Tocqueville about the importance of American civil society, he chose to tell what could only be called an embarrassing personal story about the time he visited the Tocqueville family ancestral chateau in Normandy and got his chewing gum stuck in a bad place for all to see. Nor did he go easy on the programming at C-SPAN which, of course, combines its ongoing coverage of Congress with interviews and other public-affairs programming. He recounted his own Indiana mother's comment about the network's pace when compared to its commercial counterparts: "Brian, you have to have a lot of time to watch C-SPAN." One imagines Mark Twain or Will Rogers -- whom Lamb, with a heartland affect unchanged by years in Washington, brought to mind -- telling the same sort of story.

What's more, Lamb, who was a reporter in the mid-1970s for the early cable television industry's trade magazine when he had the idea of getting the industry to support a free channel bringing the proceedings of Washington into citizens' living rooms, was clearly more than a little wowed by the evening's other award winners. The Simon Prize is awarded on the same evening as a group of prizes, named for the libertarian intellectual Richard Cornuelle and given to promising new non-governmental, non-profit groups aiding the disadvantaged.

The evening that Lamb won his grand prize, the other winners were from groups helping ex-offenders from Rikers Island get jobs (Getting Out and Staying Out), low-income kids in Silicon Valley stay in school (BUILD), homeless Orlando residents get basic personal ID (IDignity), and a gold-standard Bronx nursing home which decided to take in the abused local elderly (Weinberg Center for Elder Abuse Prevention). Although we usually focus on public policy at the Manhattan Institute, we think it important to call attention to such social entrepreneurs, who remind us both that there are many needs government can't address, doesn't address well, or has not even anticipated. Lamb was impressed enough with such work that he made clear that he'd be giving his prize money away to just these sorts of organizations. "It's never been about the money for me," he observed, noting in his only slightly barbed shot of the evening that his salary, a matter of public record, is adequate, "but nothing like those guys over on Sixth Avenue are earning." He could have added that his commercial counterparts don't often approach his level of preparation as an interviewer, whether in his many years hosting Booknotes or more recently on Q&A.

Still, as the evening developed, it became pretty clear what big things Lamb has accomplished. It turns out that it took a lot more than one meeting to convince cable moguls to support the public interest and, in fact, that were it not for just two sizeable pledges to get things started, there might not have been a C-SPAN. One could only guess that it hasn't been simple to continue to convince the industry to provide hundreds of millions since then to keep C-SPAN going because Brian Lamb thought it made sense for American democracy to have an informed citizenry. Although Lamb was modest about himself, he did not hide that sort of high-mindedness, noting that he had not even told the 200-plus employees at C-SPAN that he was going to New York to accept his prize lest they feel some sort of pressure either to cover the ceremony or to cover future events sponsored by the think tank that had chosen him. The closest Brian Lamb came to any expression of personal pride was his story about his his alma mater, Purdue University. He did not, of course, mention that the university had renamed its school of communication for him. He did tell the story of a phone call to a one-time instructor who he counted as a particular inspiration. "Thank you for what you've done," Lamb recalled telling his professor. "No, thank you for what you've done," was the reply. His former teacher, Lamb learned, always an inveterate reader and follower of public affairs, had lost his sight -- and C-SPAN, he said, was now a blind retiree's link to the world of politics and books.

Brian Lamb has received a good number of awards and honorary degrees including, in 2007, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. One can well understand why.