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A Vast Wasteland, Five Decades Later

Fifty years ago, Newton Minow, the 35 year old FCC chairman, gave a speech that’s still studied today. It’s taught in rhetoric courses, tested on the LSAT reading comprehension test and still is invoked in discussions of how communications technology affects entertainment, news, and democracy. The speech challenged broadcasters to actually watch their programming, and urged them to consider whether they were proud of what’s they’d see. It read, in part:

“When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.
But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.”

Today, Minow’s daughter, Martha Minow, dean of the Harvard Law School, welcomed her father to the stage at her institution as part of an event titled, “News and Entertainment in the Digital Age: A Vast Wasteland Revisited“. Minow (I’ll refer to Newton Minow throughout the rest of this post) starts his talk by noting that we’re a day past the ten year anniversary of 9/11, a time at which there was no YouTube, no Twitter, none of the social media we discuss today to understand the tragic events of the day. If that shift is difficult to comprehend, it’s much harder to understand the landscape of fifty years ago, when phone calls traveled by wire, when there were no computers, one phone company and two and a half television companies. There was no public television or radio. Audiences, Minow reminds us, were passive – they gathered around the single set in the house and watched in silence.

When Minow came to the FCC, it was a group wracked by scandal – previous commissioners had been fired for corruption. Minow’s relationship was a highly personal one with President Kennedy. He recalls a meeting with Kennedy and Commander Alan Shepard, recently returned from the first American voyage into space. Kennedy was enroute to a speech at the National Association of Broadcasters, and asked Minow what he thought Kennedy should say to the broadcasters. He told him, “Mr. President, tell them that this is the difference between a free and a closed society: when the Soviets send people into space, we don’t know whether they succeed or fail. In the US, we let people see and hear what’s going on.”

Kennedy gave a brief speech to the NAB which used Minow’s talking points and got a standing ovation. Minow’s infamous speech didn’t get quite as warm a reception. Minow reminds us that Sherwood Schwartz, producer of the television show Gilligan’s Island, honored him by naming the sinking ship on his show the S.S. Minow.

Why give such an incendiary speech? Television was the dominant medium of the era. The televised Kennedy/Nixon debate had decided the election. But there was little discussion about public interest and public responsibility on the part of broadcasters. Minow’s contribution as an FCC chairman was to try to expand choice – licensing the UHF spectrum, early cable TV systems and satellite television. When Kennedy invited him to visit the space program, Minow observed that satellites were more important to sending a man into space, because they permitted sending ideas into space, and ideas last longer than people. Minow notes that there’s a strong possibility that the recent events of the Arab Spring were a product, in part, of satellite communication.

Both Minow and Kennedy had lived in cities where there was a strong public television statement. They both assumed that public television would spread throughout the country, but there was no public TV in New York, LA or Washington DC. When Minow left the FCC, he went on to serve on the board of governors of the Public Broadcasting Service, and on the Carnegie Foundation, one of the major funders of public broadcasting.

As someone who’s been concerned with public broadcasting for his entire career, Minow tells us that he’s deeply disappointed by the relationship between money and politics. “Politicians need massive amounts of money to buy radio and television ads. They raise money from the public to gain access to something the public owns: the airwaves.” This is an absurdity – the US is one of the few countries in the world that doesn’t provide access to the airwaves to candidates. In the UK and Japan, it’s not possible to buy access to the airwaves. Much of the cost of American campaigning comes from the media.

Minow ends his remarks with praise for his host: “I wish the Berkman Center had existed 50 years ago,” because the issue of the responsibilities of broadcasters was neglected 50 years ago, and is still neglected today.

Anne Marie Lipinski, the new curator of the Niemann Center, is one of the three designated “respondents” to Minow’s remarks. She suggests that the most inspiring aspect of Minow’s remarks is the idea that we can do better – as individuals, as broadcasters. One of the challenges in helping us become better is defining the public interest. “I don’t think we have a shared ethos around te public interest in contemporary society.”

Journalist Jonathan Alter reminds us that Minow is also the father of the televised presidential debate. While we still see this important form of civic programming, most of what passes for civic discourse online is extremely poor. “The news business is the only business recognized by the Constitution and it’s largely dysfunctional.” Talk is cheap and reporting expensive, he argues – “the vast wasteland has a Tower of Babel on top of it.” Much of the news we get is “people like me babbling on MSNBC or Fox”, rather than the sort of expensive newsgathering required to report facts on the ground.

Yochai Benkler calls on a section of Minow’s speech where he challenges broadcasters to challenge their sponsors: “Tell your sponsors to be less concerned with cost per thousands and more concerned with understanding per millions.” This section points to the core tension between an American broadcast model that is anchored in markets, and the challenges of public responsibility. Public funding for media and nonprofit models tend to be foreign to American audiences. Yet there’s evidence that networks like the BBC produce some of the highest quality news content available.

Benkler provokes Alter by suggesting that there’s the possibility of producing key and investigative reporting via radically distributed methods. He suggests that the Neda Aga Soltan video, which Alter alluded to in his remarks, was an example of the power of citizen production. He (generously) references a talk I gave the week before about the complex interaction of Tunisians on the ground, activists in the diaspora and Al Jazeera – a state-funded media network – to amplify voices in Sidi Bouzid leading to the Tunisian revolution. “Because we all now carry sound, video and text generating and disseminating tools – phones – we’ve got an unprecedented opportunity to close the gap between what costs a great deal of money and what we all need as citizens.”

Lipinski asks whether anyone is prepared to pay for this sort of crowd-sourced media, asking if any of us pay people whose blogs and twitter feeds we read. Minow suggests that this may be the wrong place to ask for support. He notes that the Japanese closely studied media models around the world before starting NHK and based their model on the BBC, including charging a license fee for television sets. “Other countries started building public media before they built commercial. We tacked on public broadcasting after the fact, without a way to pay for it.” This leaves us with a difficult choice: “Do you want the market to decide and provide everything? And if the market is not going to provide everything, do you want to build an alternative system?”

Alter suggests we don’t hold our breath waiting for the rise of a new public media system in the US. What’s happening instead is the fragmentation of what media exists. He points to the evening entertainment market, where big shows like Leno’s and Letterman’s are ceding ground to the Colbert Report. “It’s a move towards greater choice.” But the downside of this move is that we may be seeing a divide between elites who have access to a vast selection of media, and masses who get little critical media. “The political conversation involves a maximum of 10 to 15 million people,” he asserts, “but 130 million vote in Presidential elections.”

Ellen Goodman offers a nutritional analogy. “People don’t want to eat their broccoli, but they still might vote.” She’s suspicious of the idea that public media will produce the broccoli and be able to get people to eat it, because “public broadcasting in the US is weak and designed to be weak.” Proposals that are unrealistic but still worth making for the production of marketing of broccoli might not be directed to our existing public media institutions, she argues, because these institutions may not be capable of innovation. “It’s reasonable to ask these actors to solve our problems, but they are not going to solve them.”

Virginia Heffernan, cultural critic for the New York Times, suggests we consider not just news. When we look at television entertainment, especially HBO and Bravo, we’re no longer facing a vast wasteland. Minow invites us to imagine the forces of art, daring and imagination unleashed on the television screen, and the artistic explosion we’ve seen the last few years suggests that “television both as an art form and a public health hazard makes these things possible.”

She offers a caution to Alter’s skepticism about digital media and direct sources – we quickly found dangerous media online, like Loose Change, a video that offered the conspiracy theory that 9/11 was an inside job. But we also were able to find video of Saddam Hussein’s execution, shot and distributed by an American serviceman. “Our million dollar Baghdad bureau didn’t get the execution story right” because they were working from eyewitness testimony from individuals in the room, and that testimony wasn’t correct. The actual account of Hussein’s final words came from the video, not the reporting.

What’s key in this world of internet video, she offers, is contextualization. As the New York Times invests in international reporting, they need to make a major investment in contextualizing these images and videos. Asked by Jonathan Zittrain, our moderator, how we might take on Minow’s challenge to “do better”, Heffernan asks us to “register as a Wikipedia editor today. Twice, if you’re a woman.”

Zittrain observes that the phenomenon of Doris Kearns Goodwin, sitting next to Heffernan, registering on Wikipedia could lead to some interesting edit battles over Lincoln’s biography. Asked whether she will register as a Wikipedian, Goodwin offers, “I didn’t know I could!” (Note to Jimmy Wales – we still have work to do.) C

With three former FCC chairs in the room, Susan Crawford – introduced as a “shadow FCC commissioner” in the Obama administration – is offered the first FCC response to Minow provocations with a line about “beauty before age”. She responds to Reed Hundt with a quip about pearls before swine(!) and suggests we think about parallels between Minow’s speech in the service of a “handsome young president, with a beautiful family” and suggests that such a speech would be unthinkable nowadays. For one thing, Minow would have been speaking to the wrong people. Distribution networks are now so much more powerful than content providers, and players like Comcast now control programming and internet access. “There’s only four actors in America who have any power” around these issues of content of the media, “and they really believe that personal preferences equal good programming.”

Kevin Martin, FCC chair under George W. Bush, focused his observations on a topic dear to my heart – the state of international media. He observed that business network Bloomberg now devotes significantly more resources to overseas coverage than the New York Times. (For the record, so does the Wall Street Journal – business papers cover international more thoroughly than “general interest” sources…) Despite those coverage resources, some Bloomberg channels have had difficulty gaining carriage on some cable systems, where they are perceived as specialist content.

Reed Hundt, who chaired the FCC under President Clinton, calls his moves to force broadcasters to show three hours a week of children’s programming his way of honoring Minow’s legacy. “Mandating children’s programming turns out to be a violation of the first amendment, to my amazement.” Like Minow, Hundt was “honored” by broadcasters’ response to his work – the WB network’s show Animaniacs introduced a clown named Reed Blunt… and offered the show as evidence of their compliance with creating children’s programming.

Minow points out that lawyers end up as chairmen of the FCC because “it’s the only government agency that’s regulating a medium of communication.” Lawyers who understand the first amendment understand how treacherous it is and how complicated regulation in the space can be.

Asked to comment on Minow’s legacy, Nicholas Negroponte offers the observation that photography is a medium where artists have been the technical innovators, while broadcasting is a field where the engineers have worked out the tech while the artists were creative. What the Media Lab tries to do, he tells us, is do for computer media what photographers have done – advance the field by advancing both the tools and the creativity.

Zittrain invites Minow to comment on the rise of Twitter: “threat or menace?” Minow demurs, arguing “the more communication the better.” And he thanks us for considering these issues of public interest fifty years after he raised their importance.

Terry Fisher offers a summation that introduces several new, important ideas. New technologies, and some of the practices that surround them (though are not dictated by them) are eroding some existing, long-standing dichotomies: public/private, professional/amateur, speaker/audience, news/entertainment, university/society. There are huge benefits and costs to this corrosion. We see the collapse of oligarchies, address of systematic biases, democratization of processes. But we also have fragmentation, loss of a coherent single culture, the rise of a tower of pundit babel, and the superficiality of much programming. This move, he argues, is impossible to stop. Instead, we need to think through the new opportunities the shift presents: the ability to change who contributes to this process. And we need to figure out how to ameliorate the costs we suffer. That means creating distributed models for sifting, curating, organizing, like Wikipedia, Slashdot and academic projects like Jeffrey Schapp’s Digital Humanities project. In this new world, the FCC may not be the prime mover – the real power is located in intermediaries like Google, and if we were to push for the public interest, that’s where we’d apply leverage.

2 Responses to “A Vast Wasteland, Five Decades Later”

  1. Regarding “Asked by Jonathan Zittrain, our moderator, how we might take on Minow’s challenge to “do better”, Heffernan asks us to “register as a Wikipedia editor today. Twice, if you’re a woman.””

    Ack, NO! That’s exactly the sort of hype that I believe is so harmful to real solutions, promoting instead endless wasteful nonsense. Experts shouldn’t need to waste their time arguing with cranks and martinets because of a deliberate denigration of quality over volume.

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