The Web, the Media, and Today's 'Vast Wasteland'

As chairman of the FCC during the Kennedy administration, Newt Minow famously declared television a "vast wasteland" and called for broadcasting to serve the "public interest." On the 50th anniversary of his speech, Minow writes in The Atlantic about the next 50 years of media. The Atlantic's Corby Kummer .

nminow.jpg Why did you write this article now?

A number of colleagues reminded me that May 9 was 50th anniversary of the speech. It seemed like an opportune time to reflect on what's happened in the history of communications and what would happen in the next ten or even 50 years. I thought The Atlantic would be best place for it: it's an example of an institution that's adapted to current communications. It has remained a very strong print publication in the digital world.

How long have you been a card-carrying member of the digital world?

I saw my children and grandchildren using computers so effectively I decided I had to get on board. When we moved my mother at 90 to a nursing home, it was with her computer. We've been on email for a good ten years now--that's how we communicate with our grandchildren. I have an iPad.

So what do you use your iPad for?

Well, take Don Rumsfeld's book. I got it in print and iPad versions, and I've been reading it both ways. The advantage of the iPad is that you can take it anywhere. Though with a book you can skim around and look up things more easily in the back. At my stage of life I still like books.

What media do you read?

I read four to five newspapers a day, 20 to 30 magazines a month. Newspapers: the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times , the New York Times , and the Wall Street Journal . Magazines: The Atlantic , Time , Newsweek , the Economist , Vanity Fair , the New Yorker , and the New Republic . Occasionally the National Review . I enjoy every day reading editorials in the Times and Journal to see a running debate. Business Week , Forbes , Daedelus too. I get confused with all the renewal notices. I try to read eight to ten books a year. I'm reading all the time.

What TV do you watch?

I'm a heavy TV viewer. I try to watch Jim Lehrer every night, and the network news if I can. MSNBC. CNN. I'm a news junkie. In my office I have a big television set with the sound turned off and MSNBC, CNBC, or CNN on all the time.

The extraordinary thing about news coverage today is the global reach of it. Take Libya, Egypt, Tunisia. None of that, as I said in the Atlantic article, was possible decades ago. President Kennedy asked me about communications satellites: I said Mr. President, communications satellites are more important than sending a man into space. They'll send ideas into space, and ideas last longer than men. If President Kennedy came back and you told him you could watch live what was happening, he wouldn't believe it. They had to develop footage then, put it across the ocean and the network would need to watch live.

I said Mr. President, satellites are more important than sending men into space. They'll send ideas into space, and ideas last longer than men.

I'm the vice-chairman of the presidential debate commission. I've been involved in all televised presidential debates one way or the other. It's important to use TV and radio for the political process. The advantage of television is that you can size up someone's appearance and personality. I'm a big listener of public television and radio--especially public radio, because commercial radio has pretty much abandoned the news.

I'll always remember what General Sarnoff [founder of NBC] said at the New York World's Fair [in 1939] when he demonstrated television: Now we add sight to sound. I was 13 then. I met him later when I was in government and he was still at NBC. I never got over those words. I went to the FCC because of my deep interest in television. If President Kennedy had invited me to take any other job in the administration, I would have said no. I thought television was the most important invention we had in the world after nuclear energy and the bomb.

Did you see the Internet as the next most important invention?

I confess that I didn't. I was chairman of RAND, which was very involved with the development of the Internet. Packet switching was developed at RAND, with DARPA contracts. I didn't fully grasp the implications at the beginning. It took the personal computer's arrival for me to grasp the full significance of the Internet.

What do you think of the current calls to eliminate public funding of public broadcasting?

We've been through that before. Years ago when I was chairman of PBS and would testify in front of Congress people would say, Why should there be public funds? I would say, Why should there be public parks? Hospitals? The market doesn't serve everyone with everything.

What are the chances anyone would listen to that argument today?

My predecessor at PBS was a conservative Texas Republican, Ralph Rogers. They were giving him a hard time and he said, Sonny, I was a Republican before you were born. Everyone shut up. He saved public broadcasting. This should not ever be a partisan issue.

Who could silence critics of public broadcasting today?

I can't believe they'll close it down. Every other country does better than we do. The Carnegie Commission that created public TV in very early '60s proposed a method of funding which was to charge a fee of $5 for every TV set that was sold, which would go into a trust fund. That was a pretty good idea. But President Johnson didn't want any increase in fees and taxes during the Vietnam war. The British pay a license fee, much more substantial--hundreds of dollars a year. They do that in Japan as well. We failed to create any mechanism to fund it properly.

When I was in government, I had three major pieces of legislation and all three passed. One night President Kennedy called me at home and said, How did you do that? I said Mr. President, if I can't get it done with the Democrats I work with the Republicans, and I get as much help from them. I really don't think these issues are partisan. The regulatory agencies are bipartisan, by statute. I don't think at the FCC we ever once had a partisan vote.

Hasn't that changed?

Yes, terribly. It's a very sad thing, it seems to me. Has been very partisan for the past 15 to 20 years. A very unfortunate thing. I often wonder why that's happened. It shouldn't have.

Unfortunately, the agencies are caught in the same thing everyone in society is. Partisanship today in Washington is so much more bitter than it was years ago. I think civil discourse and rational discussion has pretty much evaporated.

President Obama met his wife in our firm and he was my daughter Martha's student at Harvard Law School, when I met him. I think President Obama, particularly after the congressional election of last year, has shown the way to achieve bipartisanship and I think he can continue.

What do you think of the quality of TV news today?

On big international stories, like what's happening now in the Middle East, it's excellent. On domestic issues, unfortunately TV seems to think there are only two sides to a question, and the middle, thoughtful center is often ignored.

The first President Bush appointed me to a presidential commission. The issue was whether women should serve in the military in combat. We had open meetings. When there was a break, the TV people would rush to interview the extremists on both sides, ignoring the majority of the commission, who were centrists. I think that's happening too often today. Now you have the view that certain channels should reflect a certain point of view rather than all points of view.

I don't see that changing. What's good now is that we have much greater choice. I much prefer the days of Walter Cronkite. We served together on the board of CBS. No, I don't think there will ever be another Cronkite, because the audience is spread out now over so many more channels. But I do think that a viewer who wants to know what's going on in the world can get a pretty good understanding in today's media.

What's unfortunate about the media today is its tendency to constantly put a premium on controversy. For example, when I gave that speech in 1961, media didn't care about "public interest," the two words I wanted them to. They cared about "vast wasteland." I think that's still true now.

Minow explained his past and the media's future with

Presented by

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

The Blacksmith: A Short Film About Art Forged From Metal

"I'm exploiting the maximum of what you can ask a piece of metal to do."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

Video

The Rise of the Cat Tattoo

How a Brooklyn tattoo artist popularized the "cattoo"

More in Technology

From This Author

Just In