Beyond the ‘Vast Wasteland’

On the anniversary of former FCC commissioner Newton Minow’s speech decrying television as a “vast wasteland,” Chicago News Cooperative columnist James Warren makes an important point: Minow’s speech was really about how broadcasters should be forced to do more public affairs programming in return for their free use of the public airwaves:

Sitting high above the Loop with Newton Minow, I realized that history buried his lede–to his everlasting good fortune.

“Burying the lede” is newspaperese for sticking a story’s main point too far down. It partly explains why Monday brings the 50th anniversary of a speech that is now part of the cultural lexicon: “A vast wasteland.”

Thatâ┚¬Ã¢”ž¢s how he referred to television on May 9, 1961, in his first address as chairman of President John F. Kennedy‘s Federal Communications Commission. One can’t imagine regulatory chiefs or cabinet officers today speaking so harshly, and forthrightly, to an industry they oversee.

The real message that Mr. Minow, then a 35-year-old Chicago lawyer, wanted to impart was that in exchange for free and exclusive licenses to use the airwaves, bona fide “public service” programming should be provided by broadcasters, whom he addressed and angered at their national gathering in Washington. “Vast wasteland” was a parenthetical term.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.