Newt Minow’s “Vast Wasteland” Speech

It’s Sunday afternoon after the Superbowl. The Bud Shootout was last night. Qualifying for the Daytona 500 on Fox was completed about an hour ago.

T’ain’t a THANG on the teevee. TV land is a place devoid of content. At the moment, it’s nothing but a noise box.

The local Fox affiliate is broadcasting an infomercial with Jack Lalanne. Not surprisingly, he’s selling a juicer. He and his wife are putting unpeeled taters, grapes (stems and all), and melons (rind and all) into a machine. Three people are each drinkin the dreadful lookin stuff and the woman described as “celebrity host” for the infomercial can only muster, “Not bad!”

Speaking of “celebrity host,” I ain’t ever heard of this woman. Interesting that you gotta call somebody a “celebrity host” only if you know nobody has a clue who she is.

So I’m sitting here watching this stuff, and surfing the channel guide at the same time and I’m transported back in time to my Intro to Radio/TV/Film class at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Stabler Hall, 7th floor. And I’m thinking, “Newt Minow was right — even in the early 1960’s.”

Only then we had 3 networks plus public broadcasting. My DISH TV subscription probably covers 300 channels, including the Sirius radio package (and why would anybody want to listen to the radio on their TV? Oh, cause there’s nothing else on).

I found an excerpt from then-FCC Chairman Newton Minow’s 1961 speech to the National Association of Broadcasters. Eerily familiar, isn’t it?

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 you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you–and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.

You will see a procession of game shows, violence, audience-participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western badmen, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence and cartoons. And, endlessly, commercials–many screaming, cajoling and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you will see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, try it.

Source for speech excerpt — Kenneth Janda’s home page. Janda is a professor of Political Science at Northwestern University.

Having just spent 2 weeks confined to my home, I can attest that Minow’s comments may be truer in 2007 than they were in 1961. When I was sick, I wasn’t able to focus my eyes on a book or a magazine for very long. Heck, I didn’t even feel like listening to audiobooks — but I did knock out a light fiction novel and half of a very bad motivational book I downloaded a few weeks ago.

With all the options an individual has for entertainment — hundreds of TV channels, online video and audio content, blogs, podcasts, music subscription services, satellite radio, traditional books, magazines, and newspapers — we still have to work at increasing our brain power and balancing the need for “down time” against the tendency to “veg out” mentally. More choices doesn’t make it easier for us to engage our minds on quality programming. I think it makes it harder.

We expect soaking up knowledge to be a passive pursuit. Instead, learning is an active process. We must assimilate information, process it in our minds, and then find a forum to test our theories. If we don’t allow ourselves to be challenged, it’s much easier for us to allow others to do our thinking for us.

I detest the idea of becoming someone who believes something because one person I admire says it is so. I can greatly admire a person and still disagree with him or her on one issue or a thousand.

Minow, in his landmark speech, talks of broadcasters’ responsibility to children’s programming. The debate about who’s responsible for protecting children from inappropriate programming (and who decides what’s inappropriate) is as old as radio.

What few people talk about, though, is our responsibility to ourselves — to expose ourselves to ideas that we may not agree with.

Television — in fact the entire spectrum of media — should be entertaining. It should also present a diversity of opinions on a myriad of subjects. Fox News indeed has a bias in covering stories. So what? CNN and MSNBC are looking for their “voices” on the spectrum of ideology.

Journalists can argue “objectivity” until the cows come home — and they will. But in civics class and every basic mass communications class I’ve ever had, I’ve been taught to understand the messenger and the messenger’s relationship to the subject of the story. Every news organization has a bias because every news organization is comprised of individuals. We’re human. We’re driven by intellect and emotion — even journalists function that way. It’s the information consumer’s responsibility to understand the messenger’s particular point of view. Yes, news organizations have a responsibility to disclose any special ties to a particular subject or event, but we consumers must play a part in filtering content according to the messenger’s particular point of view.

Back to Minow:

The power of instantaneous sight and sound is without precedent in mankind’s history. This is an awesome power. It has limitless capabilities for good–and for evil. And it carries with it awesome responsibilities–responsibilities which you and I cannot escape.

I urge you to put the people’s airwaves to the service of the people and the cause of freedom.

Personally, I’m making a conscious choice tonight to free myself from mental distractions. I’m turning off every noise box in my house to hear the sound of my own thoughts and to read a good book.

If there’s something on I wanna watch, I’ll set the DVR and watch it later. 😉

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