Newton Minow

Newton Minow–The Vast Wasteland Revisited, Part II

VTR Date: May 13, 1989

Guest: Minow, Newton


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Newton Minow
Title: “The Vast Wasteland Revisited…Newton Minow”, Part II
VTR: 5/13/89

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. When we recorded our earlier program with today’s guest, I pointed out that this month marks our 33rd Anniversary. For I began THE OPEN MIND in May, 1956, just five years before President John F. Kennedy’s newly appointed chairman of the Federal Communications Commission would have the temerity to address the Annual Convention of the National Association of Broadcasters, saying “Your industry possesses the most powerful voice in America”, but then going on to label this nations’ television “a vast wasteland”.

Newton Minow stunned his listeners then, made headlines and history as FCC Chairman…and now continues our OPEN MIND look at television both in retrospect and prospect. Mr. Minow, thank you for joining me again, now, staying with me. There were so many questions that came up in our other program. One of the things…I hardly know where to begin now…one of the things we, we spoke about…the lot…what was going to happen in your estimation to networking in this country, and you talked about divisions of what is done on the air into subject areas. What then will happen to the great contribution that networking did make in the unification of this country?

Minow: I believe that when there is a great national event, an inauguration or a space shot, or a tragedy, as we saw with the terrible four days of the Kennedy assassination coverage, when there’s a great national event, I believe people will still turn back to the networks because the networks are the one place that hold this big, diverse country together. So there’ll always be a need that the networks can serve, and I thin serve very well.

Heffner: Of course, the scholars, the intellectuals, the elitists used to complain about the homogenization that was being brought about by network television. You think there will be a movement back away from that homogenized society?

Minow: I never agreed with that criticism because in a country of two hundred and fifty million peoples, spread across thousands and thousands of miles, going all the way to Alaska and Hawaii and…we’ve got to have a way to have a common base of information and understanding, and broadcasting, more than any other force, is the medium to achieve that. You know, when the Greeks started the concept of democracy, the idea they had was that you couldn’t have a democratic process with more than thirty thousand people. Why did they pick thirty thousand people, that was because that was the number of people who could crawl up those hills in Athens, and hear one speaker speak at one time. Well now you can’t do that except through the technology of radio and television. So it must continue.

Heffner: Of course I was interested to hear you comment somewhat that way when we were talking about the jury system. You seemed to feel that traditional American approaches to a jury of one’s peers had to be re-read, re-understood in the light of the kinds of coverage you’re talking about now.

Minow: I thin that there’s a big need, and in fact, in the Annenberg Washington Program, which I direct, of Northwestern University, I intend to have a real study of this made. Who can be a peer, a juror, or who should be a peer and a juror in an age of mass communications? If you get a case which is widely covered in the press, and in the media, like the one here in New York, the terrible crime in Central Park with the young woman, or like the Ollie North case, or like Watergate, or like the murder of Oswald by Ruby. When the jury is picked, the judge and the lawyer say, “Did you read about this in the paper? Did you see it on television?” And if the prospective juror says “yes”, then there’s an immediate objection to disqualify them as a juror because they know something about the case. Ironically, if you go back to the beginning of the jury system, in the Middle Ages in England, the only person who was eligible to be on a jury was someone in the neighborhood who knew the parties, who knew who was a liar, who knew who told the truth. If you were a stranger from across the next county, you were ineligible. Now we’ve turned that around somehow so that our well-informed, serious citizens, the ones who follow the news are deemed to be unqualified to serve as jurors. If, let’s take the case of Ruby shooting Oswald, if you asked a person, “Did you see that on television?” And someone said “no”, they would either have to have been out of the country, have been asleep, and that…I mean asleep a hundred times, because that was re-broadcast over and over, or blind, or in the hospital, or something because everyone saw it on television. That doesn’t mean that they couldn’t bring fairness to the question of guilt or innocence. So I think a whole new look at who should be a juror in an age of mass communications is overdue.

Heffner: You use the phrase “an age of mass communications”. Obviously you feel that there are many of our institutions, social, political, and otherwise, that must change to reflect the communications realities of our times.

Minow: When television began, Dick, the people in television and advertising, took a map of the United States one day and they drew circles around television signals. The television signal goes out about sixty miles in all directions, and they discovered very quickly that the cities and county lines didn’t match the television lines because, for example, let’s take New York, where we’re doing this program. You reach parts of New Jersey, you reach parts of Connecticut, it doesn’t match the contours of New York or New York City. So the television and advertising people said, “Well, we’ve got to have our own map”. So they threw out the political map, the governmental map of the United Sates, they drew their own map and they divided the country into, I think it’s a hundred and fifty-three areas of dominant influence, ADIs, markets. They didn’t have to have a Constitutional Convention to do that. They didn’t have to elect any officials to do that, they just did it. And they had a better match of what people were watching, which news programs every night, then if they had stayed with the conventional maps. We…as technology changes, our governmental institutions don’t change rapidly enough to keep pace with that technological advance.

Heffner: Of course, there are those who say “Yes, Newton Minow is right in what he says, but the hell with it. The real problem with our times is that we are permitting these technological changes, maybe even the re-mapping of this country, the way you suggest, we are letting those changes affect, have their enormous impact upon social and political, and other institutions that really should stand because that’s where our values are”.

Minow: I think we can’t stop technological advance, nor should we. It’s going to happen.

Heffner: Even if those advances do damage to values that we have traditionally maintained?

Minow: No, what we have to do is have public policies which keep pace with technological advance so that our values are preserved. I think what we’ve done is the opposite. We have let technology go so much faster and farther than public policy, that our values are collapsing. We used to say, years ago, I remember Bob Kennedy and I traveled together once, we were roommates in a political campaign, and one night he said to me, he said, “You know”, he said, “When I was a child, there were three great influences. There was the home, the church and the school”. He said, “Now”, he said, “I’m a father, and I have small children and there’s a fourth great influence. And it’s television and television is having as big an influence as the other three”. In fact, in many homes, probably more. So what we’ve done is whenever a technological advance comes, whatever it may be, we should try, if we can, to keep our public policies abreast of them.

Heffner: Does that mean, in your estimation, and perhaps it meant in his, that we must make certain that the values that informed our churches, our schools, and our homes must also inform what this other great institution does?

Minow: Well, exactly, and in the 80s, unfortunately, the main values…the main value that seems to have dominated our time is…quote “the marketplace”. Whatever “the marketplace” says, that’s the value. Our economists have said, “The market will decide”. Take the area of children’s television. Should the market decide that question? Should the market decide…why do we have institutions like public libraries and universities and schools? Because there are a lot of things that the marketplace does not provide.

Heffner: And yet, Newt, there’s been such a drive toward “privatization” in our times.

Minow: Yes, there is because, I think again, the swings and cycles of history…some public programs went much too far. When, in the 70s we were having the government say “You can’t have a boy’s choir or a girls’ choir, or do all kinds of silly things involving social policy”, we had an overreaction that went the other way. So these things swang and we’re in the midst of the swing back, I think, away from the marketplace, towards some better balance, a better balance between public and private interests.

Heffner: Of course, I always remember you from years ago as that wonderful optimist, and you’re expressing that optimism again in that notion of cycles, or that notion of pendulums. There are those who would maintain that you can live long enough in an era in which the marketplace prevails, the values of the marketplace prevail, and find yourself not able to pull out of that again because even the young have been affected, or infected by those values.

Minow: What usually happens in history is the marketplace goes to excess. You have some kind of a depression or a very serious recession, and when that happens, the peoples’ values come back into a different focus. I hope that doesn’t happen in our country, but it may take that kind of an event to remind people that the marketplace doesn’t do everything.

Heffner: You know, it’s interesting, you say you “hope that it doesn’t take that kind of event”, but there have been a number of people who have sat at this table, sat in that chair and who have sad very much the same thing, they look, not longingly to catastrophe, but fear that only some great economic crisis bringing about, perhaps, some great political crisis, will bring about a reversal in this deterioration, as they see it, and as I think as you see it, of our contemporary values.

Minow: But the real risk, of course, is that when you do have a cataclysmic financial or economic event, the real risk is it can go so far to the excess, as we’ve seen happen in other countries, China and the Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe, parts of Latin America, Cuba, that you see that you can have an absence and loss of freedom, and that is…in our scale of values, that still has to be number one.

Heffner: Well, the man on horseback is so likely to ride in, in those times of crisis. But, you know, I was fascinated by something that you said in an interview just…January 1987, it appeared in “TV Quarterly”. You said, “As I look back at my proudest accomplishment, it was changing Channel 13 in New York to a non-commercial station because that led to a nationwide public television service”. And, I guess looking back I always felt that the best years of my life had to do with being General Manager of Channel 13.

Minow: Well, you were the first…

Heffner: Why did you feel that way?

Minow: You were the first General Manager of Channel 13, which of course changed all of public broadcasting in America. Why did I feel that way?

Heffner: Yeah.

Minow: I came to the FCC from Chicago where we had, always from the beginning, had a public television station, Channel 11. President Kennedy came to the presidency from Boston where there’d been a public television station, Channel 2 in Boston, WGBH. Both of us thought all the country had public television stations, and when I got to the FCC, I discovered to my amazement and horror that there was no public television station in New York, or Los Angeles, or Washington, or Baltimore, or Philadelphia, and I couldn’t believe it. And we looked into it very carefully, there were very few public television stations because our government had not paid attention at the beginning, had not set aside channels for non-commercial use. Channel 13, which was then a commercial station, was up for sale, and a private group was trying to buy it, and keep it a commercial station. One day I read in The New York Times that a group in New York was trying to make it into a non-commercial station. And I decided, right then and there, that we were going to help that group to make it into a non-commercial station. Our…my staff was horrified, they didn’t like this kind of activist intervention by the government, but I think that’s one of the virtues of not being a career civil servant, I knew I was only in the government for a while, and I wanted to accomplish something. I t would take too long to go into all the details, but we did manage to change Channel 13 from commercial to non-commercial use, and we did the same thing eventually in Los Angeles. We got a public television station on the air in Washington, in Philadelphia and the other cities. Today we have a strong public television service.

Heffner: Are you satisfied with that service?

Minow: I think it’s getting there. I think it’s underfunded, and I think it has many faults, but by and large, I am satisfied, and I think it’s getting better.

Heffner: Of course, there are those how say that it, too, because of the problem you indicate, of being underfunded, now turns perhaps too quickly, too often, to looking for numbers, as commercial broadcaster does.

Minow: I know that, and from time to time I, when I was Chairman of PBS, I used to observe that closely, and criticize it, and try to change it. It’s a…it’s a constant hassle, but it’s really driven by the need to raise money.

Heffner: And what’s the…if that need prevails there, as it does in commercial television…

Minow: The best television system in the world is in Japan, because the Japanese, as they did in so many other things, studied what went on in other countries, brought their black notebooks, and took notes, went back to Japan, took part of the British system, part of the American system, and what they’ve got there is NHK, a strong, non-commercial service, funded by a license fee which every owner of a television set must pay every year, and a strong commercial service. They did it the other way around. In America we started with the commercial service, added a non-commercial service. They started with the non-commercial, added the commercial, and it works very well. You could go to school on the Japanese system.

Heffner: Well, they’ve learned so much from us, it would only…turnabout would only be fair play.

Minow: Yes.

Heffner: You k now, talking about what they’ve learned from us and what we’ve learned from them, I’m moving just for a moment away from broadcasting…Linda Murray was doing research on our guest today. In the course…a very interesting article that you write in the, I guess it was an Op Ed piece in The New York Times, on the free market blather behind takeovers. Now, you’ve indicated many of the ideas that inform you, your philosophy. Why were you concerned, or why are you concerned about the matter of takeovers?

Minow: I’m concerned because we’re becoming a nation of short-term thinkers. As I recall, that article which is some years ago, I quoted that Great American philosopher Henny Youngman…

Heffner: You did, indeed.

Minow: …he said, “I’ve got all the money I need for the rest of my life, provided I die by three o’clock this afternoon”. And I think that’s what’s happened to too much in American business. Short-term gains, short-term swings, without regard to the long-term investment and growth and jobs; of the health of a community have taken over. And that, and the free marketers, my economist friends all say, “Well, that’s the marketplace”, that’s what the economists argue. It’s not the marketplace that requires that everybody report their earnings every quarter, it’s the law. It’s not the marketplace that says that dividends are given different tax treatment than borrowing for interest. That’s not the marketplace, that’s the law. It’s not the marketplace that does all these things. We have set into our…we’ve done it to ourselves. As Pogo said, “We have met the enemy. It is us”. And we have put into place a whole set of laws and regulations, and tax policies which have led to the takeover event and which has led, really I think in many ways, to the destruction of a lot of great American values as well as business.

Heffner: Since you spend a good deal of time in Washington, what sense do you have that that is recognized by lawmakers, and secondly, may be changed?

Minow: It may…I think it’s beginning to be recognized, although. I think it is still dominated by a fear that the economist will scream that you’re intervening, you’re regulating, you are making it difficult. I think…also the other problem is that no one knows exactly what the cure is. A lot of people have figured out the disease, but we haven’t managed yet to come up with the cure. So I’m not optimistic about Washington or our government officials doing much about this quickly.

Heffner: Since we’ve come to understand that there is such a thing as unintended consequences, monkeying now, even though what you describe is the result of monkeying…

Minow: Exactly.

Heffner: …you’re saying it’s all public policy.

Minow: Exactly.

Heffner: …we’ve made these decisions. Un-making them, I would think, would be a frightening, frightening possibility.

Minow: Well, the first thing we should do is take all the economists in the country, and lay them end-to-end, and they…that wouldn’t reach a conclusion…

Heffner: (Laughter)

Minow: …that wouldn’t come up with a conclusion. The economists…you’ve heard what one economist said to the other?

Heffner: Tell me.

Minow: He said, “Well, it may work in practice, but it doesn’t work in theory”, and I think that…what…the first thing we’ve got to do is take the idea that the marketplace solves everything and put that one away.

Heffner: We’ve made that assumption, and not just…if I remember correctly thinking even about the Federal Communications Commission…they are Democrats who first began to talk about de-regulation, if I’m not mistaken. Is that…

Minow: That’s correct.

Heffner: …that fair?

Minow: It happened…I don’t think it’s a partisan thing, I don’t think it has anything to do with Republicans or Democrats, I think it was part of our times, and part of vogue and change and philosophy, plus the fact that some regulation had gone too far. I believe that.

Heffner: You have also talked and written about phenomena that have to do with other aspects of our political situation. Not just the matter of debates, not just the matter of the cost of politics, but you’ve been aroused enough to write about what’s gone on in our party primaries. Now, you’re a Democrat.

Minow: Absolutely. Strong Democrat. I became a Democrat, I was not a Democrat, I became a Democrat when I became assistant to Adlai Stevenson, when he was Governor…of Illinois.

Heffner: You mean you didn’t know what you were before you joined the Governor?

Minow: That’s right. I was not partisan, or was not really identified with one party.

Heffner: Okay, you’ll accept the designation now.

Minow: As a Democrat, yes.

Heffner: Why are you so concerned about the present primary situation?

Minow: I think the present system of selecting candidates for the presidency, particularly on the Democratic side, guarantees us a bad result. We have Iowa and New Hampshire having such disproportionate influence over what happens, it pushes the Democratic candidates to the Left, to the point that they can’t win a general election. We’ve had…what…seven candidates running in Iowa and New Hampshire to win one of those…either the caucus in Iowa or the primary in New Hampshire…to win required that you have less votes, less votes, than it takes to carry one…o-n-e…one of Chicago’s fifty wards.

Heffner: Yes, but now you’ve mentioned the magic word…Chicago…and I can’t help but think, as I read Newton Minow, “Hey, this gentleman comes from Mayor Daly’s bailiwick, the late Mayor Daly’s bailiwick…

Minow: And the current Mayor Daly…yes.

Heffner: Well, I wasn’t thinking about the present one, but about his father, and the old idea of the smoke-filled room, or the smoke-filled convention…really doesn’t bother him one tiny bit.

Minow: I would welcome it…it probably ought to be a smoke-free room in…

Heffner: These days.

Minow: …in the 80s…these days. I’d take the cigars out. But I’d bring the politicians back, and I’d bring the peers back to pick the candidates. Absolutely. Because they know about candidates, they know who’s got ability, they know who tells the truth, they know about their character, and they want to get the best candidate in order to win the election.

Heffner: Of course, that runs so much against what we have been hearing and thinking from Jimmy Carter, right on down the line…

Minow: But if you look at what’s happened…we’ve…the Democrats have lost five of the last six Presidential elections, with the current system.

Heffner: Yes, but Ronald Reagan ran against the “pols” too.

Minow: If the Democratic Party had had a better system, Ronald Reagan would have stayed a Democrat.

Heffner: That’s…I…you know I’m not going to quarrel with you, Newt…

Minow: (Laughter)

Heffner: …about that. That goes back too far, but, very seriously, the notion of running against, and winning…running against, beating and winning, the political machinery must give an indication that we couldn’t possibly tolerate moving back, as you suggest.

Minow: Well, what…I really don’t agree with that, Dick. I think that the Democratic Party has turned over to a handful of people, who have no accountability, who have no responsibility, in a couple of states, the job of choosing who our leaders will be, and I think it’s insanity.

Heffner: Then you’re describing what, presumably had existed before…a few people picking our candidates. You just say they’re different people.

Minow: You exchanged one set of bosses for another, and now you’ve got a set of bosses who don’t know what they’re doing. That’s what’s happened.

Heffner: Who are they?

Minow: They are…they are people who are on the extreme end of the Democratic Party, who push the candidates on certain issues in a way which makes them unacceptable to the broad center of American politics.

Heffner: Well, we have about two minutes…a minute and a half left…let me ask you what you would like to see happen politically in this country.

Minow: I would like to see the best candidates of both parties, because I’m not that strong a partisan, believe it or not.

Heffner: Okay, that’s…

Minow: The best candidates of both parties emerge from the process to give the public an intelligent choice. We have not done that over the last three or four…five times, and I think that there are many better people, many better men and women, who would be better candidates for President than the ones we’ve come up with.

Heffner: And you think there is machinery that can bring them to the fore?

Minow: Yes, I do. Yes, I do. The first thing I would do is get rid of these early primaries, particularly in these states that don’t reflect the United States of America. We have an undemocratic process today. It carries the label of being a democratic process, it is an undemocratic process.

Heffner: That’s the irony of it, isn’t it?

Minow: Yes.

Heffner: Newton Minow, I really appreciate your joining me again today.

Minow: Dick, I thank you for inviting me, and also it gives me a chance to catch up on a very old and very valued friendship with you.

Heffner: Thanks. Good-bye, Newt. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, today’s various topics, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend, of us both, used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The Lawrence A. Wien Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.