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Revisiting the Vast Wasteland

Newton Minow’s landmark “vast wasteland” speech commemorated by Medill

May 5, 2011 | by Wendy Leopold
In his landmark 1961 speech, Newton Minow, as chair of the FCC, referred to television as a "vast wasteland," posing a debate that has lasted a half-century. Photo by Stephen Anzaldi

EVANSTON, Ill. --- In his landmark 1961 speech, Newton Minow, as chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), referred to television as a “vast wasteland,” posing a debate that has lasted a half-century. At a panel last week commemorating the address’ 50th anniversary, Minow said, “the issues in that speech are as important today as they were then.”

“The media has changed but the situation has not,” the Northwestern University life trustee and Walter Annenberg Professor Emeritus told an Allen Center audience at the commemoration convened by Medill.

In turn, PBS NewsHour anchor Judy Woodruff, New York Times TV critic Virginia Heffernan and Chicago Public Media CEO Torey Malatia discussed Minow’s longstanding concerns, the legacy of his often-quoted speech and journalism today.

“Whatever else Mr. Minow did with that sublime phrase the ‘vast wasteland,’ he set up an extremely productive tension in television that has greatly enlivened the art form,” said New York Times’ Heffernan. Those two words, she added, “put (TV) under a moral cloud” and his “goading” improved programming and inspired new TV forms.

Broadcast veteran Woodruff called the reshaped newsgathering environment that digital and mobile technologies have created “a work in progress,” and encouraged us to “fasten our seat belts and hang on for the ride, working to make sure that there’s as much vetting and verifying of information as possible.”

“I am an unabashed (Newt Minow) groupie and count myself lucky to be among something else that’s vast -- the legion of his friends,” added Woodruff, who said that the concept of public interest in her own and other American newsrooms is part of Minow’s legacy.

Moderator Craig LaMay reminded the audience that Minow was a 34-year-old attorney with no broadcast industry experience when, in 1961, he lambasted TV programming and told the nation’s broadcasters that the FCC would enforce the law requiring them to serve the public interest in return for use of the airwaves.

“Indeed, only a few weeks before President Kennedy appointed him to the FCC, the Glencoe library declined to accept him as a board member, citing his youth and inexperience,” said LaMay, Minow’s longtime writing partner and associate professor at Medill. “Today there are few people who can draw on a richer or more varied background in communications.”

While Minow spoke of globalization and technology as “two complete revolutions” that would be beyond President Kennedy’s imagination, WBEZ president Malatia warned audiences of unreasonably high expectations of the new technologies themselves as transformers of journalism today.

“I stumbled on a quote about how technology would make it possible for global understanding because all countries now could be linked to other countries in an instant and people could talk together and work out their problems,” Malatia said. The quote referred to the laying of the first transcontinental cable in the late 19th century. Committed journalists, not technology, must protect the public interest, he suggested.

Heffernan said the work of critics of books, theatre, music and other art forms often is seen as “tending gardens and pruning bouquets.” In contrast, she called hers as television critic “the Sisyphean task of trying to cultivate the vast wasteland.”

While Malatia worked to define the public interest about which Minow spoke years ago, Heffernan worked to dispel the perception of television as a vast wasteland. She urged her audience to make more time, not less, for watching TV and the Internet before deploring their contents.

For every literary period, she said, there is an art form considered disreputable and at the same time that people can’t stop consuming. “There’s always a punch line show in any period -- probably now it’s ‘Jersey Shore’” -- that’s supposed to embody television,” she added. “But I watch more than the national average of television a day, and I can tell you there are a lot of really good things on TV.”

A full transcript of Minow’s landmark 1961 speech is available at http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/newtonminow.htm. An article titled “A Vaster Wasteland,” recently published in The Atlantic magazine is available at http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/04/a-vaster-wasteland/8418/.

The commemorative celebration of the speech and of the man who made it was sponsored by Medill with generous support from Carnegie Corporation of New York. Minow, a partner from 1965 to 1991 at Sidley Austin LLP, is senior counsel in that law firm’s Chicago office. He also is a graduate of the School of Communication and Northwestern University School of Law and is a 1965 honorary degree recipient. 

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