Newton Minow

Vast Common Good

Air Date: January 3, 2015

Newton Minow recounts the history of public television's origins.


I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. In the history of this program perhaps no past guest’s insights were as profoundly rooted in our contemporary American experience than the patriot who joins us today. Before the last media critic, Neil Postman sounded the alarm that Americans were amusing themselves to death, our guest presciently forecast a vast wasteland of television that threatened to degrade our culture, if not outright destroy the common good.

He is Newton Minow, Chairman Emeritus of PBS whom in 1961 President John F. Kennedy appointed Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, the Walter Annenberg Professor Emeritus at Northwestern University, Minow is Senior Counsel at Sidley Austin where he was partner for three decades. In that prophetic speech, his inaugural public address before the National Association of Broadcasters, Minow warned of a noxious megaphone of game show violence, murder, Western bad men, gangsters, more violence and cartoons.

As he reflected on the 50th anniversary of his landmark speech in the Atlantic Monthly, Minow identified the words he wanted to endure … public interest.

He wrote, “To me that meant …” as it still means …”that we should constantly ask … what can communications do for our country? For the common good? For the American people?

To the distinguished Chairman Emeritus, the question today is how can we chart a path to a vast common good as opposed to a vast wasteland. And it is such an honor to have you here today.

MINOW: Alexander it’s a great honor for me, I was a friend of your grandfather, who started the Open Mind and was the first Executive Director or Manager of Channel 13, New York which I’m very proud of because we started Channel 13 when I was in the government.

HEFFNER: And you said that Channel 13 really marked the beginning of public broadcasting … without Channel 13 public media today would not be possible.

MINOW: When President Kennedy and I went into the government in 1961, we discovered something neither of us knew. That although he came from Boston and I came from Chicago, were there were what they called then “educational television” stations, there was none in New York, there was none in Washington, there was none in Los Angeles, there was none in most parts of the United States.

And I knew that without having a station in New York, it would be impossible to have a national service. So we changed the … a commercial station, Channel 13 and converted it into a not-for-profit public station and that’s the history and that became really a foundation …. That and the Washington station, the Los Angeles station … became the foundation of a national service.

HEFFNER: News programming on commercial stations …. does have merit at times, but as you indicate, it’s much more difficult today for the civic-oriented programming to seep into our culture. How do we get back to that? I mean if you were Chairman of the FCC today, what would you be doing?

MINOW: Well, I don’t think the commercial stations are by any means evil. I have been a member of the Board of CBS for years, I’m a member of the Board of the Tribune stations, so I don’t regard them as evil … the problem is that their finance depends on selling advertising. And as a result you want to reach, they have to reach the largest audience they can all the time. And as a result, most programming does not reflect what the entire country wants.

HEFFNER: And it doesn’t necessarily reflect the social imperative of information that’s going to breed a culture of citizenship.

MINOW: You and I are conducting this program just when the Roosevelt series ended it’s first broadcast on PBS. The Roosevelt series was magnificent … you could learn American history in a new way … over 100 years of American history.

Why is, why was a program like that not on commercial television? And why won’t it be on commercial television? Fourteen hours, an enormous effort with historians …I think that’s because of the need to get advertisers and the need to raise money. It’s important that we have a service, a broadcast service which is not dependent on commercial interests.

HEFFNER: And that is really the uniqueness of public television, public broadcasting.

MINOW: Well, you mentioned Sesame Street. I can tell you a little story about that. I was on the predecessor of PBS, it was called NET … at a meeting in New York, a young woman named Joan Cooney gave us the first presentation of what would be Sesame Street … I was knocked out by it.

A brand new chairman of the FCC was a friend of mine … Dean Birch, Dean was a Republican from Arizona, was Senator Goldwater’s campaign manager in 1964.

Dean had asked me for ideas as he took over the Chairmanship of the FCC and I went from New York to Washington to have a meeting with him and I told him about Sesame Street and I told him about Joan.

And he said, “What’d she look like?” And I said, “She’s very nice looking, sort of medium sized.” And he said, “Did the name Ganz come up?” And I said, “Yes, as a matter of fact, she was introduced as Joan Ganz Cooney”.

He said, “You won’t believe this, Newt,”, he said, “I asked her to marry me when we went to the University of Arizona together. How do I reach her?”

So I put them in touch together and he invited her to Washington and he said, “Is there anything I can do for you?” She said, “Well, I’ve got foundation funding, mostly from the Carnegie Corporation. But she said, “I’ve asked for government … HEW … to help bring it across the country. I’ve asked for a million dollars and HEW turned me down.” And Dean said, “Well, I think I can help you with that. He said Senator Goldwater has HEW’s budget. If you … go with me, I’ll take you over to see Senator to Goldwater …

She went in to see Senator Goldwater and Senator Goldwater said, “Ganz, Ganz, Ganz, are you from Arizona?” And she said “Yes.” And he said, “Are you related to Harry Ganz?” And she said, “Harry’s my uncle.” And Goldwater got up, threw his arms around her and he said, “Harry was my first contributor when I first ran for office. What can I do for you?”

HEFFNER: (Laugh)

MINOW: He proceeded to call HEW, got her the money and Senator Goldwater was responsible for Big Bird.

HEFFNER: With the threat of corporations now … seeping into the Internet on this issue of net neutrality … again, if you were Chairman or if you were advising the Chairman, how would you try to manage this relationship with corporate America in a way that can preserve the educational value of public media?

MINOW: Well, I’ve told President Obama … whom I knew long before he became President … that the FCC is, in my view the one agency of the government that has more intimate contact every day with every citizen in this country.

If you want to make a telephone call, if you want to watch television, if you want to listen to the radio, if you want to send an email message, whatever you want to do involving any form of communication … you’re dealing with something that under our law … the FCC regulates.

I think the FCC’s burden today is much more complicated than it was when I was, when I was there … we didn’t … the Internet had not been invented. The whole computer technology was, was just beginning.

I think the government’s obligation … and this is what I felt as my basic purpose … was to enlarge choice. So we opened up cable, we opened up pay TV, such as HBO or Showtime or whatever.

We opened up UHF, we opened up satellites … the government should enable as many people as possible to operate a communications service for the entire country.

We certainly succeeded in that. The choice today is extraordinary. We did not succeed, however, in funding properly a essential non-commercial service. PBS, WNET, all the 200 odd public stations struggle each day and we’ve got to do better on that, if we want to preserve the value.

On the Internet, going back to your question … I think the FCC will see to it that the Internet remains open to everybody on equal terms. I’m sure that will happen.

HEFFNER: You talk about the expansion of choice under your tenure as Chairman and in successive tenures of the people who followed you. In that expansion of choice though, was exactly what you ominously projected. Which is, if there’s not a publicly focused, a public minded moral compass guiding programmers, the result is going to be all the choices are bad.

MINOW: Well, you’ve got to go back to history to understand what happened. When broadcasting was invented, through radio, most countries started with a publicly funded service. It was not a commercial service.

Britain started with the BBC. The Japanese started with NHK. Canadians, French, everybody all over started with a non-commercial service.

We did the opposite. And when I went to the FCC, I found the man who wrote the Federal Communications Act, he was still alive. And I said, “What was your thinking?”.

And he said, “Well, we were just out of the Depression, we wanted people to invest in this and we, we knew that we had to encourage investment …

HEFFNER: As an opportunity for growth …

MINOW: … and that succeeded. But at the same time we failed to do the other side of it, which was to offer a non-commercial service side by side.

HEFFNER: And that really … I’m so glad you mentioned that history, because that’s really the origin of this conundrum … wanting to achieve a democratic media culture and then the imperative of making money. I mean that’s really the original historical puzzle.

MINOW: Well, Congress tried to … as very often Congress tried to compromise to achieve two sort of contradictory … reconcile two contradictory purposes. So they said a broadcaster had to serve the public interest, not the private interest, the public interest. And we’ve been arguing about what that means ever since the Communications Act was created in 1934.

HEFFNER: What, what does it mean to you today?

MINOW: Well, it means to me … well, I’ll give you a specific example, of what I think. Where we’ve really failed is in covering politics.

We do not provide public service time to our political candidates. I’m a member of the Commission on Presidential Debates, been involved in every debate. That’s the one time in our national elections when we are … the candidates are provided time without having to pay for it.

And what we’ve got now is enormous amounts of money going to candidates for one purpose and it’s to buy time on radio and television in which they … the kind of commercials that are too often run are degrading the opponent, are not talking about issues and I … were we really have failed is dealing with use of this medium properly for political education, political campaigns.

HEFFNER: Money is not speech.

MINOW: I think the Supreme Court is going crazy with this idea that money is speech. In fact, I wrote an article about this and later Justice Stevens commented to me about it. Suppose you’re arguing a case in the Supreme Court … you’re a lawyer, arguing a case in the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court says, “You’ve got 30 minutes and I said, “Well, I can’t get it done in 30 minutes. I’ll buy an additional … 30 minutes.” They say, “Are you crazy, you can’t buy time”. “Well you said money is speech, here’s a check, give me another 30 minutes.” The Supreme Court will say, “You’re nuts, we can limit the amount of time that you have here.” Except, they say, there’s no limit on the amount of time if you’re the Koch brothers or somebody else, who can buy time on television. It’s crazy, money is not speech.

HEFFNER: You wrote in your Atlantic piece, “Finally and critically if over the air television is to survive as a licensed service operating in the public interest, we must make better use of it in our politics” and you elaborate on the point you just made.

So I’m wondering, given that you sit on the Commission that constructs the debate system that we have, how can, how can the Commission on Presidential Debates lead a kind of revolution within our political discourse, so that there is a regulated political conversation that is … that, that occurs irrespective of how many dollars one candidate has or another candidate has?

MINOW: I wish there was a Commission at every level of the political process. The one I’m on deals only with the race for President.

But I was thinking local races and state races … there should be some form where a candidate, regardless of whether they have money or not has a chance to present his or her views to the electorate.

HEFFNER: I do have to bring my grandfather into this (laugh) …

MINOW: Well, that’s good.

HEFFNER: Bless his heart, bless his heart … he believed very adamantly and, and imparted this to his students … and taught the Fairness Doctrine. Something that has been criticized by Conservatives and increasingly Liberals, too … and it was a very basic stipulation … that if you give 30 minutes or 30 seconds to a candidate from one perspective, that you should get the counter-perspective.

MINOW: Certainly your grandfather was right. The idea of the Fairness Doctrine was much more important when we had so few channels. I mean if you had … if you live in the city where there was one television station, and that the owner of that station didn’t want other viewpoints to be heard, the government had to step in and say, “You’ve got to have a Fairness Doctrine where other people get to speak.”

Now that you’ve got so many voices, it’s a different story. But watching the Roosevelt series reminded me … when I was at the FCC … Mrs. Roosevelt called me one day and she said, “Why aren’t you helping Reverend Smith?”

And I said, “I’m sorry, Mrs. Roosevelt, I don’t know …” She said, “Reverend Smith is a Black minister in Jackson, Mississippi and he’s running for Congress and he went to the LB … WLBT, the local television, with a check … he didn’t want any for nothing … he wanted to buy some … they wouldn’t let him talk”.

Well, I got into it … it’s a long story, however, we don’t have time for it. But he got on the air, he lost the election, later there was a hearing in Congress and it turned out Reverend Smith was running against the incumbent, who’s name was John Bell Williams … Congressman Williams started giving me a hard time and saying, “Who is … why is the government telling a television station who they have to put on the air?”

And I said, “Wait a minute, Congressman, this is your race, your opponent, is in Jackson, Mississippi, running against a Black candidate, who was a Minister …”, he got up and walked out.

Later, many years later I met Aaron Henry who said to me, “You know who I am?” And I said, “No”. He said, “When you were Chairman of the FCC”, I was Reverend Smith’s campaign manager, I’m the one that called Mrs. Roosevelt, I’m the one that wrote you that letter.”

I said, “Mr. Henry, what do you do now?” He said, “You don’t know what I do now?” I said, “No, I don’t, sir, tell me”. He said, “I’m the Chairman of WLBT.”

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

MINOW: What happened after I left the government, the station persisted in its racist approach and the FCC took away their license. And the Black group, with the help of the United Church of Christ applied for the license and got it. So it’s … justice some how worked it’s own way. It took 35 years, but it happened.

HEFFNER: There’s a young woman, documentarian Astra Taylor, and she written an interesting book called A People’s Platform in which she argues and I’m mentioning this because it’s tied to your comment about the Fairness Doctrine’s applicability when we were in a different media environment.

She argues in this book that the media hierarchy has merely been transferred onto the web. What, what was originally a populist revolt of freedom of expression in the form of Wikipedia and You Tube and some of these forms of self-expression and creation that can exist without the corporate monolith supporting it. She argues that it doesn’t really matter now because the people who are followed on Twitter and the people who gain notoriety on all these new media, are still part of the traditional corporate media hierarchy and therefore the money that we talk about in our political theater just as much affects who has the megaphone in our discourse.

I’m only mentioning this to you because I wonder in this media environment, is it really that different?

MINOW: The foundation of our country is in the First Amendment to the Constitution. We believe everybody can say what they think, or believe what they think and that’s the most important value of our free society. And I think we have that today, I believe we have that.

HEFFNER: In your very famous speech, you mention six principles. First, the people own the air. And that’s the most important, still. How can we ensure for our children and our children’s children that the people will always own the air.

MINOW: One of the … this is a conundrum today because of technology. When the regulation of communications began in this country, phone calls went by wire, broadcasters performed through the air. Today as Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab observed “Most people make their telephone calls today through the air and watch television through wire”. It’s a complete technological reversal.

The foundation of the legal principles of which the government could regulate broadcasting was the use of the air waves. If the air waves become not used for mass communication, but only for telephone use … particularly for wireless use and all people are getting their, either access to the Internet by wire or, or getting their television by wire, there’s got to be a fundamental re-thinking here and I, I think we’re just in the beginning of trying to adapt.

The government wants new technologies to be innovative and to open the door to, to them and not stop them and at the same time maintain principles of fairness and equality. So it’s the same thing in our Constitution, we’re always trying to find the right balance.

HEFFNER: I love what you said in your sixth principle … “I don’t’ come to Washington to idly observe the squandering of the public’s air waves.” You say you believe in the gravity of your mission and you were very honest that even if you … even if, if others felt you were taking the job too seriously, it was a commitment that was sacrosanct and, and, and I think in retrospect you were absolutely right.

If the American population still needs to wake up to the reality that public broadcasting is in jeopardy, then what do you think will fundamentally change the big picture?

MINOW: One thing is to keep telling people about Senator Goldwater …

HEFFNER: (Laugh)

MINOW: … and Joan Cooney …

HEFFNER: … right …

MINOW: I keep telling people the Republicans, the Republicans, Conservatives value public broadcasting …

HEFFNER: And that’s to reinforce that it is a non-partisan medium …

MINOW: That’s my point.


MINOW: And, incidentally, when I was at the FCC, which is a bi-partisan agency … we never once had a partisan vote … I would not allow it.

HEFFNER: I wonder how you overcome that because right now they’re deeply divided along …

MINOW: Today, today is a disaster because what’s going wrong in our country is a fundamental bitter anti-the other side and we can’t have that.

I went in the … I was a soldier in World War II, one part of the JFK generation, I wish we could somehow restore the values of that.

HEFFNER: And to your children, and grandchildren, what do you say?

MINOW: My children and grandchildren are very much more sophisticated about modern communications than I am (laugh).

HEFFNER: But I mean to instill the values from your service to …

MINOW: Well, they’ve got it … my kids have all done it. My three daughters are, are lawyers doing good every day.

HEFFNER: Well, they are remarkable, you are a remarkable American family between the FCC and Harvard Law School and …

MINOW: My wife and I say that the most important thing we’ve ever done is our kids.

HEFFNER: (Laughter) Many important things. Newton Minow, thank you so much for joining me today.

MINOW: Alexander, good luck with your program and carrying on your grandfather’s dreams.

HEFFNER: Thank you, sir.

And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time…for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind.

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