50 years of “A Vast Wasteland”
May 4, 2011
I had the honor (and the pleasure) of attending an event last Friday hosted by the Medill School of Journalism honoring Newton Minow, the FCC Chairman under Kennedy who coined the term “a vast wasteland” with regard to television programming. The event was scheduled to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the speech Minow gave to the National Association of Broadcasters, during which he chided broadcasters for equating “the public interest” with whatever the public was interesting.
As part of the event, PBS NewHour’s Judy Woodruff, Virginia Heffernan, the New York Time television critic, and Torey Malatia, the president and CEO of Chicago Public Media talked about where the television industry has gone in the 50 years following Minow’s speech. The news, I’m afraid, was mostly negative. With the explosion of cable channels and the internet, the proportion of television and entertainment that does not need to hew to the public interest has grown, while broadcasters have mostly continued their policies of a few hours of children’s programming and a couple of news shows per week. Radio has done no better.
Heffernan argued that there is television programming that exists that meets and exceeds the standards laid out by Minnow in his 1961 speech. She went on to say that she hoped that people would watch more television, not less, and that the type and number of programs in existence today say a lot about our culture.
But perhaps the most entertaining and heartening portion of the evening came after dinner, when Minow’s three daughters stood up to speak about their remembrances of their father. The three women, themselves highly successful lawyers and writers, remembered how their father always managed to get home in time for father-daughter time.
Martha, the dean of the Harvard Law School, remembered seeing questions about her father’s famous speech on her bar exam. She and her father conferred after she discovered that she got two of the questions wrong, and sent a letter off to the test’s publisher questioning the “correct answers.” They received in return a letter stating “We’ve been asking these questions for years and you are the first to complain.”
It was touching to see how close and connected this family remains, even with all of their various commitments around the country and the world.
The idea that the airwaves belong to the public and that those broadcasters who “rent” space should program to the public interest seems almost quaint, given the explosion in the type and number of media. But it is something that remains important, especially in the realm of public media, PBS and NPR. For their commercial brothers, it seems that they are still hoping that they can do a little local news and a few children’s cartoons and call it a day.
The big question for me is does this still matter to people today? Is it possible to have a public interest if the public isn’t interested? If people can go straight to the internet or to niche cable channels to get news and information that speaks directly to their biases and interests, can local broadcast television even get through?