Fifty years ago yesterday, then-Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton Minow gave a speech that still stands as possibly the best use of the government bully pulpit in modern history. Then a young newcomer in the Kennedy administration, Minow challenged audience members at the National Association of Broadcasters convention to spend an entire day watching their station, from sign-on to sign-off. "I can assure you," he said, "that what you will observe is a vast wasteland."
Though Minow later said he wanted "public interest" to be the words remembered from the speech, it became known as the "vast wasteland" speech that ushered in an era of public broadcasting and expansion of news coverage on broadcast television.
Last night at the National Press Club, Minow, 85 and still senior counsel at Sidley Austin in Chicago, spoke about the speech and shared the stage with current FCC chair Julius Genachowski. The event was co-sponsored by the Global Media Institute at George Washington University, and was aired by C-SPAN, which archived the footage here.
In introducing Minow, Genachowski said the speech is "as relevant today as it was 50 years ago" and told Minow, "you continue to inspire us every day." Genachowski said more than once that "the world has changed" since Minow's tenure, but he shares the same goal of maximizing choices as the media landscape has expanded to include the Internet and mobile devices.
Genachowski presented Minow with a compilation, drawn from FCC files, of some of the 4,000 letters the agency received after the speech.
Minow recalled with a laugh that one of the letters he received asked him, "what time does the vast wasteland go on?" And he said that his original text ended the famous sentence with "of junk," though he decided not to use that phrase. FCC staffers advised him to delete "vast wasteland" as well, but he refused.
Moderator Frank Sesno asked Minow the inevitable question: whether he sees the current media landscape as a vast wasteland. Minow said no, also confessing that "I happen to be a television junkie." In his speech, Minow wanted broadcasters to expand choices, and that has been accomplished, he said last night. "No matter what your interest is, you have a channel."
Minow said he was confounded by the current partisan debate over funding for public broadcasting, which he noted was originally pushed by Republicans. "It should never be a partisan issue," Minow added. Asking why public broadcasting is needed to supplement commercial broadcasting, he said, is like asking, "Why have public parks when you have country clubs?" When commercial broadcasters start airing series like PBS' Civil War documentaries, or Sesame Street, or the NewsHour, Minow said, then he would listen to proposals for de-funding public broadcasting.
The event celebrated other ways in which Minow influenced history, well beyond his days at the FCC. At the urging of his daughter Martha, then a professor and now dean of Harvard Law School, he hired a promising Harvard law student named Barack Obama as a summer associate at Sidley Austin. There, Obama met his future wife Michelle. Obama and Genachowski were Harvard Law School classmates.
Genachowski gave a shout-out to Minow's other two daughters Mary and Nell as well as Martha. All three were in the audience at the event along with Minow's wife Jo. Borrowing from the wasteland, Genachowski called the daughters the "Charlie's Angels of U.S. jurisprudence." All three are lawyers; Mary is an expert on library law, and Nell is a shareholder activist and film critic.