'Vast wasteland' grows under FCC chief

by Beverly Kelley, Ventura County Star

They don't make them like Newton Minow anymore.

Last month, Kevin J. Martin, Federal Communications Commission chairman since 2005, found himself as the bulls-eye concerning a congressional investigation into whether 1) he is abusing his authority and 2) his leadership has led to "a breakdown in proper procedure at the FCC."

Not only has the 41-year-old Republican with close ties to the Bush administration been publicly chastised by all four of his fellow commissioners, but lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have charged that Martin rushes to judgment, suppresses data or employs flawed studies (especially with respect to cable penetration figures), snubs public input and schedules hearings with minimal notice to gain the tactical advantage.

Things are so bad that Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., head of the House Commerce Committee, fired off a missive to Martin last month that sniped: "Given several events and proceedings over the past year, I am rapidly losing confidence that the commission has been conducting its affairs in an appropriate manner."

Minow, on the other hand, rose to political prominence May 9, 1961, by speaking two little words, "vast wasteland," to the National Association of Broadcasters. Those words achieved icon status as the punch-line of countless editorial cartoons, an entry in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, inclusion in "25 Speeches that Changed the World," and the correct answer to questions on "Jeopardy!," "Trivial Pursuit" and "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?"

In fact, no other member of the Kennedy administration, save the president himself, was invited to appear more on television and radio that year than Minow. Not only did The Associated Press survey of editors choose Minow as 1961s top newsmaker, but their collected reportage established Minnow as a household word with millions of Americans. An astounding 80.6 percent of the 4,000 citizens who personally wrote to Minow supported his sentiments.

Minow's "Vast Wasteland" speech is more than just a stinging censure of television programming — it carried the promise of change. The big stick Minow planned to wield to effect that change was bulleted in the pithy phrase: "[T]he people own the air." Then he added, "For every hour that the people give you, you owe them something. I intend to see that your debt is paid with service."

Little was known about the 35-year-old Minnow when he was first appointed other than he was the youngest person to hold the job, he was acclaimed as a college debater and he was personally selected by JFK to clean house at both the FCC and the networks still reeling from the payola and quiz-show scandals.

In early 1961, television viewing, with nearly nine out of 10 households boasting one or more TVs, dominated every other form of mass entertainment. The public, Minow remarked later that year, spent more time ogling the boob tube than doing anything else except working and sleeping.

Only five years earlier, chunks of the schedule at all three networks had been consciously devoted to cultural programming despite the handicap in ratings. News divisions weren't expected to make money.

"Is there one person in this room," Minow asked the NAB, "who claims that broadcasting can't do better?"

To that end, Minow shepherded the All Channels Act — which led to competing commercial and noncommercial stations on UHF — through the legislative process, as well as persuading Congress to clear the way for communication satellites, which, he prophesized quite rightly, would prove more earthshaking on a global scale than sending a man to the moon.

In "How Vast the Wasteland Now?," a Columbia University address Minow used to mark the 30th anniversary of his little talk to the NAB, he recalled the prophetic words of American essayist E.B. White.

After glimpsing an experimental television demonstration in 1938, White felt compelled to say: "I believe television is going to be the test of the modern world, and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision, we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance to the general peace, or a saving radiance in the sky."

"That radiance," Minow concluded 53 years later, "falls unevenly today. It is still a dim light in education. It has not fulfilled its potential for children. It has neglected the needs of public television. And, in the electoral process, it has cast a dark shadow."

Not much has changed since 1991 either.

The days of Martin, who conveniently fails to remember that the airwaves belong to the people, may be numbered, but I doubt many Americans will miss him.

To them, the nearly 50-year-old words of Minow still ring true: "When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse."

article originally published at http://www.venturacountystar.com/news/2008/jan/07/the-vast-wasteland-grows-under....

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey