Little Bits of History

What a Waste

Posted in History by patriciahysell on May 9, 2014
Newton N. Minow

Newton N. Minow

May 9, 1961: The Wasteland Speech is made. Newton N. Minow had only recently been appointed as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) by President John F Kennedy. This was his first major speech and he had a few choice things to say about television as a medium. Commercial programming, according to Minow, was a “vast wasteland” and he advocated for programming in the public interest instead. He did admit that when done well, nothing is better than television. But when it is done poorly, nothing is worse. He felt that sitting in front of a TV set all day did nothing to improve one’s mind or outlook on life. He also addressed the special needs of children vis a vis commercial programming.

The official title for the talk was “Television and the Public Interest” and was given at a time when there were only three networks in the US. It is counted as one of the hundred best American speeches of the 20th century and one of 25 “Speeches that Changed the World” – a list put out by Vital Speeches. The key phrase had been suggested to Minow by his reporter and freelance writer friend, John Bartlow Martin. Martin had just watched twenty consecutive hours of TV as research for a magazine article and called the programming “a vast wasteland of junk”. Minow deleted the two extraneous words. He later noted that the two most remembered words from the speech were “vast wasteland” when he would have much preferred that “public interest” had garnered the attention.

Minow was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1926. He served in World War II for two years and attained the rank of sergeant. After the war, he went to Northwestern University and graduated in 1950 with a Juris Doctor degree from their law school. He worked in a private firm for a few years before becoming a law clerk to Chief Justice Vinson of the US Supreme Court. He was assistant counsel to Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson and worked on his failed presidential campaigns. He also worked on the Kennedy campaign and in 1961 was appointed as Chair to the FCC. During the campaign, Robert and John Kennedy discussed with Minow the importance TV was playing in their children’s lives. This speech did not come as a surprise to them.

At the time, many applauded the speech citing the gratuitous violence and pervasive frivolous nature of commercial programming. Others claimed the speech was elitist and snobbish and that many enjoyed what the three networks provided. In 2011, in a speech given at Harvard, Minow said he could never have anticipated the impact of TV on American life but remained sure of his assessment – that it fell far short of doing important public service.

When television is good, nothing – not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers – nothing is better.

But when television is bad, nothing is worse. 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. – all from the speech by Newton Minow

Television is a medium because anything well done is rare. – Fred Allen

Also on this day: Xenu Was Here? – In 1950 L. Ron Hubbard published his book on Dianetics.
Gay Rights – In 1726, five gay men were hung after a molly house raid.
Crown Jewels Stolen – In 1671, Thomas Blood tried to steal the British Crown Jewels.
Lincoln Cathedral – In 1092, the church was consecrated.


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