More than six decades ago, Newton Minow, a 35-year-old lawyer who had been tapped by newly elected President John Fitzgerald Kennedy to chair the Federal Communications Commission, electrified the debate about television’s influence on society and convinced a generation of Americans that they had a right to demand better media.
With his immortal characterization of television as a “vast wasteland,” the outspoken advocate, who died Saturday at 97, inspired generations of media reformers who, to this day, carry forward the fight that he was instrumental in starting.
Minow faced daunting odds back in 1961, at a point when media critics had only begun to consider the role of television in our lives, and he was the first to admit that he did not achieve all of his goals. Yet his rejection of the notion that the future of media would be determined solely by the whims of for-profit corporations represented a radical assertion of the public interest that is as relevant today as in those heady days when Kennedy, Minow, and their colleagues scoped out a New Frontier.
Minow joined Kennedy’s administration as a brilliant legal thinker who had clerked for Supreme Court Chief Justice Fred Vinson and served as a legal counselor and policy adviser to Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, as well as later working on both of Stevenson’s runs for president. He was not, as his critics were quick to point out, an industry insider, as so many FCC commissioners had been and remain. Rather, he was an engaged reformer with big ideas about how democratic values could and should be communicated.
And he was not afraid to ask tough questions about the rapidly evolving media landscape of the mid-20th century.
Minow’s intellectual rigor and fearless truth-telling quickly made him what is still the most high-profile and controversial FCC chair ever. The commission, which had been a dynamic force under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the New Deal days of the 1930s, had by the 1950s fallen into the trap of deferring to the dictates of media companies that put bottom-line demands ahead of the public interest.
During that time, Minow became increasingly concerned about two issues: TV’s impact on the intellectual development and behavior of children, and the influence of mass communications on the democratic discourse. He expressed those concerns in extended conversations with Robert F. Kennedy, who passed them along to his brother. This inspired President Kennedy not just to nominate Minow for the FCC post but also to give the young chairman broad leeway to shake things up.
That Minow did.
In May of 1961, shortly after he had taken charge of the FCC, Minow delivered his historic “Television and the Public Interest” address to the National Association of Broadcasters convention. The speech made him a lightning-rod figure in the debate about the direction of television in particular—and the media in general.
“When television is good, nothing—not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers—nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse,” he warned the 2,000 television executives, most of whom had been expecting to hear bland reflections from a friendly bureaucrat.
I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there for a day without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.
Minow was relentless in his critique, decrying what he described as “a procession of game shows, violence, audience participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, Western bad men, Western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence and cartoons. And endlessly, commercials—many screaming, cajoling and offending.”
“Most of all,” argued Minow, television offered a diet of mind-numbing “boredom.”
The executives, who were defining the direction of broadcasting and, to an ever-increasing extent, the national discourse, didn’t appreciate the suggestion that they were dumbing down the United States. They mocked Minow as an intellectual elitist, and the shows they produced took shots at him; for instance, the name of the grounded charter boat in the mid-1960s CBS comedy Gilligan’s Island—the S.S. Minnow.—was reputedly chosen as an anti-Minow dig.
But Minow kept pushing for better television. Under his leadership, the FCC cleared the way for the development of noncommercial broadcasting nationwide. “It was not until I got to the F.C.C. in 1961 that I discovered that New York City, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, Cleveland and on and on and on had no public television station,” he told The New York Times in 1986. “It’s hard now to realize that public television didn’t even exist in New York City 25 years ago. Looking back, I think the best thing I did in government was to change Channel 13 in New York from commercial to noncommercial use, because that led to what is now a nationwide television service.”
After Minow left the FCC in 1963, he emerged as a leading advocate for what would become the Public Broadcasting Service. As board chair for the Carnegie Corporation, he helped fund some of PBS’s most innovative programs—including Sesame Street.
Later in life, Minow became an outspoken critic of political advertising that was funded by special interests and that was flooding the airwaves with negative messages and attacks rather than ideas. Warning about “the corruption of the democratic process,” he proposed plans to provide free air time to candidates and expand debates. And, as the digital age dawned, he again sought to open up discussions about how to ensure that theInternet did not become the next vast wasteland.
Today’s media landscape—with escalating levels of corporate consolidation, the malign influence of the tech barons and social media, journalism under seemingly constant threat, and more money in politics than ever before—shows that Newton Minow was wise to worry. And he was just as wise to tell the American people that the way out of the wasteland was to demand that media served the public interest rather than the bottom-line demands of propagandists and profiteers.