Where the Phrase 'Vast Wasteland' Came From

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Two days ago I mentioned Newton Minow's presentation at the National Press Club on the 50th anniversary of his own "vast wasteland" speech, as JFK's newly appointed young chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

Yesterday a note arrived from Ray Boomhower, senior editor with the Indiana Historical Society Press in Indianapolis. He writes:

martinjb.jpg>>Thanks for the item on the Newton Minow talk commemorating the 50th anniversary of his "vast wasteland" speech. I wanted to put a plug in for the author of the speech, Indiana journalist and writer John Bartlow Martin [right]. A former newspaper reporter and one of the country's leading freelance writers in the 1950s and 1960s, Martin, who worked on the presidential campaigns of Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy, had begun work on a series on television for the Saturday Evening Post. As he notes in his autobiography, It Seems Like Only Yesterday, he began the series by describing a day watching television for twenty straight hours, concluding that it had presented "a vast wasteland of junk."
 
In writing Minow's speech, Martin said he suggested he say to the National Association of Broadcasters: "I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air . . . and keep your eyes glued to the set until the station goes off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland of junk." Martin goes on to note that in editing the speech, Minow "had the wit to cut 'of junk.'"
 
Of course, as a speechwriter yourself, you know, as Martin did, that even though he originated the "vast wasteland" phrase, it took nothing away from Minow, who, as Martin stated, also had the "courage to throw it [the phrase] in the teeth of the broadcasters and thus show the public the need for reform."<<

I sent this note to Newton Minow -- after all, he is an Atlantic author -- asking him if the account was correct. He wrote back just now:

>>Yes it is accurate.

I had the help of four drafts from different writers, but the best one by far was from my dear friend John Bartlow Martin who volunteered to help me.

John and I had worked together for years on Adlai Stevenson's campaigns.  John's draft included :" vast wasteland of junk"  and I deleted "of junk."      Other parts of John's draft were also used  --  some parts came from other writers and some from me.<<

I had read about Martin as a speechwriter for Adlai Stevenson and knew his work as a journalist, but I had forgotten his connection to this speech. At the Press Club event this week, Minow did mention the crucial elision that turned "vast wasteland of junk" into "vast wasteland." And as Boomhower correctly notes, the ultimate blame -- or credit -- for a political speech always belongs to the public figure who gave it, not the staff speechwriter who may have cranked it out. It's the public figure who chooses the writers, instructs them directly or indirectly, and finally decides what to use. So Minow rightly deserves lasting association with this speech and its turns of phrase; and it's also nice to know of Martin's role.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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