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.

Minow explained his past and the media's future with
The Atlantic's Corby Kummer .


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'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.