A Vaster Wasteland

Fifty years after his landmark speech declaring television programming a “vast wasteland,” the author surveys the reshaped media landscape and lays out a plan to keep television and the Internet vibrant, democratic forces for the next half century.

Our second commitment should be to use new communications technologies to improve and extend the benefits of education at all levels, preschool through postgraduate. In the midst of a bloody civil war, the Land Grant College Act of 1862 made the United States the world leader in higher education and established the foundation upon which the nation’s defense, diplomacy, and economic competitiveness have relied for 150 years. But today it no longer makes sense to let television broadcasters use the largest and most valuable swath of our electromagnetic spectrum to send out signals that more than 80 percent of American households don’t need because they receive their television service through cable or satellite. We should auction off this precious real estate and use the money to invest in education. It’s time for a new land grant act—a Land Grant of the Airwaves.

Our third commitment should be to use new technologies to improve and extend the reach of our health-care system. Other developed countries are far ahead of us in telemedicine, using wireless communications and high-definition imaging to provide preventive health care at low cost. No organization in the world is a more sophisticated user than the U.S. military, which provides primary care through telemedicine to many of its personnel around the world. Certainly we should commit to using telemedicine to serve Americans at home. Last year’s telecommunications-policy proposal by the FCC wisely includes improved health care as a goal.

Fourth, the nation’s communications infrastructure for public safety and local and national security is a dangerous disgrace. We learned that most vividly on September 11, 2001, when first responders could not communicate with one another, and the nation’s commercial and emergency networks were virtually overwhelmed with traffic. Congress and the FCC must build and maintain a new and secure communications network as a national-security priority.

Fifth, we need to give greater support to public radio and public television. Both have been starved for funds for decades, and yet in many communities they are essential sources of local news and information—particularly public radio, which is relatively inexpensive to produce and distribute and is a valuable source of professionally reported news for millions of Americans. There is virtually nothing else like it on the air. Public-television stations, as I saw when I was the chairman of PBS, are overbuilt, sometimes with four competing in the same market. Where that is so, stations should be sold and the revenue dedicated to programming a national news and public-affairs service, built on the foundation of the splendid PBS NewsHour. And a crucial part of that service—as with public media around the world—should be to promote the country’s arts and culture.

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. It is simply unconscionable that candidates for public office have to buy access to the airwaves—something the public itself owns—to talk to the public, unlike in most other major democratic countries.

The U.S. Supreme Court has moved aggressively over the past decade to overturn congressional action to reform campaign finance. I believe the Court is wrong in thinking that money is speech and speech is money. A lawyer arguing a case before the Court is allowed 30 minutes for oral argument. The Supreme Court would laugh if a lawyer who wants more than 30 minutes went to the court clerk’s office to buy it.

Put simply, candidates for public office have to raise huge amounts of money to buy access to the public airwaves so they can talk to us. And because airtime is so expensive, they talk to us in slogans and slurs, and only obliquely, if at all, about substance. Recent court decisions that it is constitutional to limit contributions but not expenditures seem to me to threaten the life of the democratic process. The logic of this arrangement reminds me of Justice Robert Jackson’s warning, two generations ago, that the Constitution is not a “suicide pact.”

Of course, any limitations on free speech are a concern in our constitutional system, and no one should suppose that the problem of cash in our campaigns has an easy First Amendment answer. But television is another matter. If broadcasters are to continue as the lone beneficiaries of their valuable spectrum assignments, it is not too much to require that, as a public service, they provide time to candidates for public office. That time is not for the candidates. It is for the voters.

As we think about the next 50 years, I remember a story President Kennedy told a week before he was killed. The story was about French Marshal Louis-Hubert-Gonzalve Lyautey, who walked one morning through his garden with his gardener. He stopped at a certain point and asked the gardener to plant a tree there the next morning. The gardener said, “But the tree will not bloom for 100 years.” The marshal replied, “In that case, you had better plant it this afternoon.”

Presented by

Newton N. Minow is the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, PBS, the Rand Corporation, and the Carnegie Foundation, and is the Annenberg Professor Emeritus at Northwestern University.

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