The "Vast Wasteland"... a Half Century Later

GUEST: Newton Minow
AIR DATE: 01/14/2012
VTR: 11/11/2011

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

But it is very much in another role long past – as the Founding General Manager of New York’s premier educational television Channel Thirteen in the early 1960′s – that I can testify just how crucial a role today’s Open Mind guest played in making Thirteen possible, in expanding the whole concept of public television in America, and at least for a long, long moment in time making commercial television think hard about its public interest obligations and about the price it might have to pay for ignoring them. Of course, it didn’t.

But a half century ago – as John F. Kennedy’s youthful and wonderfully outspoken Federal Communications Commission Chairman – Newton Minow did put the fear, if not of God, then at least of government into American broadcasters when early on he bearded the lion in its own den, addressing the Annual Convention of the National Association of Broadcasters and telling its fat-cat broadcast license holders that while they had made American television into a “vast wasteland”, he intended to use the FCC’s “power to license, to renew or to fail to renew, or to revoke a license” to get broadcasters to meet their obligation to serve the public interest.

My guest very much put it on the line: “I did not come to Washington to idly observe the squandering of the public’s airwaves”, he told the broadcasters.

“I intend to take the job of chairman of the FCC very seriously.
“There will be times perhaps when you will consider that I take myself or my job too seriously. Frankly, I don’t care if you do.

“For I am convinced that either one takes this job seriously — or one can be seriously taken.”

WOW … one would say today.

So, Mr. Chairman, looking back over the past half century, what do you think has happened to those wonderful words?

MINOW: We changed television totally. We opened public television, which didn’t exist, really … there was no public television station in New York, Washington, DC, Los Angeles … I had come from Chicago, where we had a station. President Kennedy had come from Boston where there was a station. We thought the whole country had stations.

So we did something about that. We opened up cable, we opened up satellite television … we tried to give the public a greater range of choice. And I think in that we succeeded.

HEFFNER: If you would do … to do the same thing you told the NAB people that you did … if you were to sit down for a day, a week … and watch commercial television … would you be saying the same thing? Would you use that wonderful phrase “vast wasteland” again?

MINOW: I didn’t pay any attention to that phrase at the time.

HEFFNER: You didn’t?

MINOW: No.

HEFFNER: Everyone else did.

MINOW: I … well the press picked it up. I had two other words in mind … the two words I cared about were “public interest … public interest”. Those two words are in the Communications Act some 37 times. But broadcasters have forgotten that their job was not to serve the private interest, but to serve the public interest.

HEFFNER: Do you think … maybe it’s an unfair question … you’re a sweet and generous as well as humorous person … how well has the Commission done in this past half century in observing its own charter to make certain that broadcasting serves in the public interest?

MINOW: It’s spotty. Sometimes it’s been much better than others. When I went to the FCC, it was at a terrible time in the broadcast industry and at the agency. There had been scandals in the business … the payola scandals, there had been bribery scandals … the … President Eisenhower … President Kennedy’s predecessor had to fire the FCC Chairman for improper conduct.

The thing was a mess. So the first thing I wanted to do was clean the joint up and I think we did succeed in that. And then I felt the important thing was to enlarge choice for the viewer and we certainly … today, my God, there’s more choice than you can handle.

HEFFNER: Did you reflect Kennedy’s interest?

MINOW: Yes. I, I didn’t talk to the President about the speech before I gave it. But the night I gave it, I got a phone call … I got two phone calls at home.

First was from the President’s father. Ambassador Joseph Kennedy. I got a … I picked up the phone … “the White House is calling. Ambassador Kennedy is calling” … I thought “Oh my God, I’m going to catch hell to this”.

Ambassador Kennedy said, “Newt, I told my son that was the best speech since his Inaugural Address. You stick with it, you do what you’re doing … anybody gives you any trouble … you call me … good-bye” … hung up.

The next call was from Edward R. Murrow, who was then … had left CBS and he was running the US Information Agency for the government. And he called and he said, “Newt, you stole my speech”.

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

MINOW: I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Don’t you remember the speech I gave in your home town of Chicago two years ago”. And I said, “Ed, I’m sorry … I’m not familiar with it.” He said, “I’ll send it to you. You stole my speech”.

Well, I read his speech and he was right because he gave the same speech, two years earlier to the news directors in television.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting that you spoke to the National Association of Broadcasters … it wasn’t all that many years later … it was in ’68 that Lyndon Johnson spoke to them, too, immediately after he said in a televised address to the nation that he would not seek, nor would he accept the nomination of his party.

He was talking about the great power of the broadcasters. And he was reminding them that with great power goes great responsibility. He was talking about what the living room war had done to our capacity to win a war … rightly or wrongly.

MINOW: Well, you remember, he said, “When I lost Walter Cronkite” … he said, “That was the end of the war”.

Ah, I had an extraordinary experience with Vice President Johnson and President Kennedy … the day I gave the … the day before I gave that speech.

Ahem … America had fallen behind in the space race. The Russians had sent a man into space … we had not. But finally in May of, of 1961 … the United States sent it’s first man into space … Commander Alan Shepard … he arrived home safely and he was in the White House … the President was going to take him to Congress.

And the President asked me to meet him at the Oval Office and to ride with him to the National Association of Broadcasters Convention … where the President was to give a speech.

So I waited outside the Oval Office … President Kennedy came out … and he said, “Newt,” he said, “what about taking the Shepards with us to the Broadcasters …” I said, “That would be terrific”. He said, “Well, let me arrange it”. He went back in the office and he came back out …

He said, “It’s all under … being arranged.” He said, “You come with me I want to change my shirt.”

So he took me upstairs to the living quarters and started to change his shirt. He said, “What do you think I should say to the broadcasters”?

And I said … even though I knew him before he was President … I was scared to death, I was very intimidated. And I said, “Well, Mr. President, you ought to say that in our country when we send a space shot, we invite the press … radio and television … to cover it. Everything is in the open. That’s a free society. When the Russians do it, we never know what happened … if it was a failure or a success, because everything is a secret”.

President didn’t say anything. He didn’t say, “That’s good, that’s bad” … we went downstairs, we started to get in the car and I realized now because of the Shepards I should get in the second car … and the President said, “No, no, no, no.”. He said, “I’ll take the Shepards in the back seat with me and he turned to the Vice President … he said, “Lyndon …

HEFFNER: (Laugh)

MINOW: … you sit in the jump seat … Newt, you sit in the jump seat”. So the two of us are in the jump seat. We’re driving up Rock Creek Park to what was then called the Wardman Park Hotel, it’s now the Sheraton Park Hotel.

The President was in a very ebullient mood. He slaps Lyndon on the back. He said, “Lyndon,” he said, “As Vice President, you are the Chairman of the Space Council, but nobody knows it. But I guarantee you, Lyndon, if that space shot had been a failure, I would have seen to it that everybody would have known.”

HEFFNER: (Laugh)

MINOW: I thought it was pretty funny and a big mouth, so I said, “Mr. President …”, I said, “If that had been a failure, the Vice President would have been the next astronaut”.

And Lyndon looked at me like he’s going to kill me. President got up, gave his two minute, perfect speech about a free society, how we opened up the space shot to radio and television. And left to great cheers.

And the next day I came back to speak and I think the broadcasters wished I had changed my shirt …

HEFFNER: What a double whammy, huh. Newt, you’ve had such a fascinating career and I know that you began in terms of your chairmanship of the FCC and your familiarity with Jack Kennedy through Adlai Stevenson.

MINOW: Yes.

HEFFNER: And I’ve always wanted to ask you … you think he would have made as interesting, as spectacular a President, however short lived his Presidency was, as Jack Kennedy did?

MINOW: I think he would have been very successful, particularly on international affairs. That was his main interest and he was very, very good at it.

He played a critical role in 1962 in the Cuban missile crisis. Where … what he proposed basically was what we ended up doing. We ended up swapping the American missile bases in Turkey and Greece in exchange for the Russians getting out of Cuba. We didn’t talk about it much, but that was Stephenson. Stephenson was … on foreign affairs, you couldn’t do better. I think the Cold War would have ended more quickly if he had been the President.

HEFFNER: Are you suggesting that on the domestic scene that wouldn’t have been the case?

MINOW: I’m not sure. I think … I was in love with Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy … the first time I met Jack Kennedy I thought to myself “This, this guy should be President of the United States” and he was, tragically for such a short time.

But they were both … they both believed something that is not really thought of as being true today.

HEFFNER: What’s that?

MINOW: They both believed politics could be an honorable profession. They both believed that.

Stevenson also believed something nobody believes today. Stevenson said, “There are worst things that can happen to a person than losing an election”.

HEFFNER: But he lost twice.

MINOW: He lost twice.

HEFFNER: Do you think if Eleanor Roosevelt had prevailed he would have run the third time and lost again?

MINOW: He had promised her that he’d stay out of it. I, I had urged him … and others had urged him to come out for Kennedy before the nomination occurred. But he resisted and I, I think he had promised Mrs. Roosevelt that he would stay neutral.

HEFFNER: She wanted him, again to be the candidate.

MINOW: Yes, she did. Yes, she did.

HEFFNER: A, a modern day William Jennings Bryant, perhaps.

MINOW: Speaking of Mrs. Roosevelt … she called me when I was at the FCC one day. And she said, “Why haven’t you answered Reverend Smith’s letter to you?”.

And I said, “I’m sorry Mrs. Roosevelt, I don’t know what, what it is.” She said, “Reverend Smith is a minister in Mississippi, he’s a Black man, and he’s running for Congress and he’s trying to get on television there. He’s willing to pay for it and he can’t get on.”

Well, I checked and sure enough, down in the basement at the FCC he letter is sitting on somebody’s desk and I said, “Well, what about this?” and they said, “Well, we checked with his opponent … who was a man … the incumbent … his name was John Bell Williams … and he’s not buying any time and the law requires that the candidates be treated equally. And since the opponent is not buying any time, station says they don’t have to sell any time because they’re not selling any time to the opponent.”

I said, “That’s ridiculous”. At that time we sent telegrams. I send a telegram to the station … I said, “Tell me why it’s in the public interest to have no public discussion of this Congressional race on television?”

Well, they came back and said, “We’re going to put him on.” I said, “Today … the election is three days from now”.

They put him on, he lost the election, but it was the first time a Black candidate in Mississippi had ever been on television.

HEFFNER: Well …

MINOW: Later the FCC took their license away … after I had left … because they continued to discriminate.

HEFFNER: Newt, though you bring up the matter of, of equal time … and you’re very much involved in the Presidential debates …

MINOW: Yes.

HEFFNER: … now. Now, we didn’t have those debates until Jack Kennedy and, and Richard Nixon. And I remember very well when Frank Stanton … testifying before the Senate, asking them to get rid of 315a. Then changed his tune and said “suspend 315 for the Presidential and Vice Presidential election”.

MINOW: And they did it for 1960, the Presidential race only. So it got to be ’64, Congress did not change the law. ’68 did not change the law. ’72 did not change the law. ’76 did not change the law. But the League of Women Voters then petitioned the FCC to re-interpret the law so that a debate would be treated as a news event. And news events are exempt from the equal time law. So that’s what happened.

HEFFNER: Newt, funny question to ask you. Don’t you think we’re playing a national game with the Section 315 … equal time in this way?

MINOW: Oh, I think we should go way beyond 315. I, I think … scandalous, scandalous that we are one of the few free countries that does not provide public service time as a routine to political candidates.

The best systems are in Japan and England, Canada, most of Europe. Where candidates who run for public office are provided time. They don’t have to raise the enormous amounts of money to purchase time on the public airwaves.

HEFFNER: What do you think’s going to happen now? We urged when we worked together on that 20th Century Foundation project that you chaired …

MINOW: Well, and you did …

HEFFNER: … Citizens Time.

MINOW: I have to say, Dick, you did a brilliant job with that. It was the best idea … even though it was not adopted … we testified in Congress about it. It was a great idea and I, I think one day it will still happen.

HEFFNER: One day?

MINOW: One day.

HEFFNER: Do you realize how many years ago that was?

MINOW: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: That was 1968 …

MINOW: You and I may not see it, but I think it’s going to happen. Because this is a scandal.

HEFFNER: What do you think about the debates now?

MINOW: Well, I’ve been watching … I’m a political junkie … I’ve been watching all the Republican debates … there are too many of them. And unfortunately they’ve opened it up to partisan audiences with a lot of reaction and screaming.

But they do give the voters … they do give the voters an opportunity to evaluate the candidates and that’s what counts.

HEFFNER: And that’s what you and, and your commission wanted … voter time.

MINOW: That’s right. I’m still on that Debate Commission, even at my age I’m Vice Chairman of the Debate Commission … we just, within the last week, announced the dates and places for the 2012 debates.

HEFFNER: Please, Newt, none of this … even at my age … we established before that I’m older than you are so that …

MINOW: A few months.

HEFFNER: … all right … let’s, let’s turn, we don’t have much time … let’s, let’s turn to the thing that has interested you so over the years … what we now call “public television”. Where are we with public television?

MINOW: Oh, we failed the most important part of it … which was to find an adequate way to finance it. The original idea that the Carnegie Commission on Public Television proposed was that there would be a $5 excise tax on the sale of every television set and that $5 would go into a trust fund for public broadcasting. Other countries have similar arrangements.

HEFFNER: Much more money, though.

MINOW: Much more money. We failed to fund it. And President Johnson, who wanted public television, but was in the midst of the Vietnam War, did not want to propose any increase in taxes, failed to provide any adequate method of finance.

So the result is that public television and I’ve been the Chairman of our station in Chicago, the Chairman of PBS, we go around with tins cups begging for … public for money … and we succeed to a certain extent. But it is not what it should be.

HEFFNER: But you have also been a major figure in the American foundation world. Chairman of the Board at the Carnegie … do you think it’s about time for the major foundations to fund, to endow public television?

MINOW: I think … that, that would be an excellent choice. I think that the general public also should participate in it. It shouldn’t only foundation money. Foundations do support it … not the way the Ford Foundation was really a principal funder of … the beginning of public television.

And I, I would hope the foundations would do, would do much more in the future.

HEFFNER: I … you’ve been quoted as saying that the public television structure itself needs some changing. Not so many stations, perhaps.

MINOW: There are too many stations. Tragically … take the case of Los Angeles. We had something like five or six television … public television signals coming into the same area.

HEFFNER: Each asking for money.

MINOW: That’s right. Which was … it, it ended up with … tragically the biggest station, KCET, withdrawing from PBS. So there should be fewer stations and there should … there’s an excess of democracy in the public television world … to an excess.

HEFFNER: That’s interesting. Spell that one out.

MINOW: Well …

HEFFNER: Too much localism?

MINOW: Well, each station … the station’s came before the network. The stations came first. And as a result these stations really don’t want a strong national service, as I think they have to have if you want to really be an effective service.

HEFFNER: You think that’s the way we can fund it.

MINOW: The funding is a mess. If you ask any of the public television people here on Channel 13 or the SUNY stations or all of them. They’ll all say “We don’t have enough money”. And it’s true.

HEFFNER: You know … I … I was a small station manager, or a believer in small stations when I ran Channel 13. I admit that since that time … dollar problems have demonstrated to me that we need to consolidate. Doesn’t satellite broadcasting now provide the key to that?

MINOW: It does. And I’m very proud that when I was involved with PBS, we were the first, before commercial broadcasting … we were the first to go to satellite.

HEFFNER: I didn’t know that.

MINOW: Yes. The … public television was the first operator of a satellite system connecting the stations.

HEFFNER: What happens then to local issues? Seriously.

MINOW: Well, we do a very good job in Chicago. We have a nightly program, every night … an hour of local issues. It’s widely watched and I wish every station had the, had the facilities and the money to do it. Because it’s needed.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but the … Chicago, they’ve had you all these years and the moxie you bring and … as in Boston … with the Lowell Foundation. Where else do you find that?

MINOW: Well, I, I think … I think Channel 13 is, is strong. But it needs help. I think we’ve got to find a long term, better way for, for … what we spend on public broadcasting in this country compared to what the British spend or the Japanese spend … it’s infinitesimal.

HEFFNER: You know … spent … I get the signal we have two minutes left and there’s so much I want to ask you about.

I, I want to ask you about Citizens United and I want to ask you about the Fairness Doctrine and so many other things.

The Fairness Doctrine, for instance. Would you, today, endorse …

MINOW: No. I think the Fairness Doctrine was needed when we had few stations. If you had … let’s say … we have citizen … in this country with one television station … it was impossible for one television station to be allowed to present only one point of view. So the government had a … what was called the Fairness Doctrine … said you should deal with controversial issues, but when you do, you must present all sides of it.

Today with the enormous proliferation of stations and with the concern we have about the First Amendment, I think that the Fairness Doctrine’s day is over. But I do think that the public has got to switch channels and get different points of view, not watch only one channel.

HEFFNER: But, Newt, the public doesn’t.

MINOW: Well, we ought to educate the public. I think young people are getting more and more of their news now through sources other than television.

HEFFNER: Yeah. But their news is about who’s twittering me about this, that or the other thing.

MINOW: That’s right.

HEFFNER: Are you sanguine about that?

MINOW: No, and I think what’s happened is the attention span of this country has shortened to such an extent, that any complicated issue … and we’re … our country is confronted with such important, complex questions, and we don’t really grasp the significance of them because our attention span is of … about like a flea.

HEFFNER: Newt Minow, our time is up …

MINOW: Dick, it’s great to be with you.

HEFFNER: Well, it’s great to have you here. And I wish you’ll come back and talk about all these other issues. Meanwhile, thanks for joining me today.

MINOW: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time and many times. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

And do visit the Open Mind website at www.theopenmind.tv

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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