‘A Vast Wasteland' revisited: Newton Minow joins Harvard's digerati to ponder the digital future

Imagine this:

A newly appointed chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the nation's most important media regulator,  appears before a confab of television big wigs and reads the assembly the riot act.

The chairman opens by making it clear that he is not impressed with television programming, which in the course of his speech he characterizes as "a vast wasteland".

He is blunt: "Clean up your own house, or the government will do it for you."

High-minded: "I am here to uphold and protect the public interest."

Expansive: " "I believe that the public interest is made up of many interests."

And inspirational: "We need imagination in programming, not sterility; creativity, not imitation; experimentation, not conformity; excellence, not mediocrity. Television is filled with creative, imaginative people. You must strive to set them free."

There is, of course, nothing fanciful about the scene I have sketched.

Newton Minow, the 34-year-old Chicago lawyer President John F. Kennedy appointed to lead the FCC spoke the words
I have quoted in his first public address, which was to the National Association of Broadcasters fifty years ago.

Minow's talk, widely referred to as the "Vast Wasteland Speech," is something more than a historical artifact; although it is that -- a testimony to the pragmatic idealism to which the best aspects of JFK's New Frontier aspired.

In a larger sense, Minow's words were part of a stream of progressive reform that began to course in 1902, when President Theodore Roosevelt signed legislation that would eventually spawn the Food and Drug Administration.

Throughout the administrations of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and even Richard Nixon, the idea that the federal government would play a central role in regulating and refining commercial behavior in order to protect the public and promote a larger good became so widespread that it was akin to gospel.

Yesterday's gospel, however, is today's heresy.

It may not yet be a truth universally acknowledged that the government is bad while only the marketplace is good, but the political currents flow in that direction.

That is why Minow's scheduled appearance at Harvard Law School on Monday at 5 PM should be of such interest.

Minow will commune again with the themes he explored in his 1961 speech in a symposium entitled "News and Entertainment in the Digital Age: A Vast Wasteland Revisited".

Anyone can do the math from the dates I've cited above, but it seems potentially seminal that Minow, an Adlai Stevenson Democrat, an heir to a political tradition with roots that go back 100 years, will 50 years after he sought to redefine excellence in broadcasting tackle what 21st century communication could and should be.

Not many theoreticians have the practical experience of Minow, who for many years now has dwelled at the crossroads of politics and media.

What was once quaintly referred to as "educational television" grew into PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service, as a result of Minow's FCC tenure. While before cable, Minow's sponsorship of the All-Channel Receiver Act of 1961 mandated UHF reception for all subsequently manufactured televisions. These were the first halting steps in what became an eventual broadcast revolution.

Jonathan Alter, presidential historian, Bloomberg columnist, and MSNBC commentator, served with Minow on a Harvard study group that lead to the establishment of regular televised presidential debates in 1976.

Alter, who will be a participant in the "Vast Wasteland" Revisited symposium, told me in a telephone interview that he thought it would be hard to over estimate Minow's historic role is shaping the contours of presidential discourse.

"Newt was a proponent of debates between Stevenson and Eisenhower," Alter said, "Those may not have come off, but the energy of his idea resulted in the Kennedy-Nixon debates, which were of undeniable historic importance. Newt helped to marshal the intellectual energy that made debates a regular part of the political landscape. "

Another symposium participant, and a co-sponsor of the event, Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of the Neiman Foundation, said that Minow has "a fierce insistence that we can do better which reinforces his sense of public utility and public necessity."

I asked Lipinski what she might be looking to emerge from the symposium?

"Newt has a wonderful power to sculpt language. And that can set an agenda, provoke others along entirely new lines of thought, or help those sorting through their ideas to refine their thinking."

In an attempt to get a bead on Minow's thinking prior to Monday's speech, I emailed him four questions, here they are with his answers:

Do you think the sense of public spiritedness you called upon in 1961 is alive in today's communication conglomerates? I do not believe the current communication companies think much today about their public service obligations. Fierce competition has focused their attention on their bottom lines to the  exclusion of concepts of the public interest coming first.  There are exceptions, of course, but today's communications  companies are a long way from the values of Edward R. Murrow.

Is it possible to leverage past government investments and contribution for future public good? Without the government's investment and initiative, there would be no internet, no communication satellites. Research funded with public money prompted our technological revolution, and most young people are not aware of this history. Advances depend on public/private partnerships - and today's political climate endangers more progress.

Is there a single issue that matters above all others? Net Neutrality? The basic problem is there is no common understanding of what the words network neutrality mean.

Is the digital wasteland any worse than the old broadcast wasteland?  Not comparable. Broadcast channels are limited, digital communication is unlimited. I believe that expanded choice for viewers, listeners, and digital communicators means more freedom for all of us.



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