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Guest Commentary: ‘Wasteland’ Not Alone as Resonant Comment

Oct 20, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Most Americans now living were not yet born when Newton Minow, President John F. Kennedy’s Federal Communications Commission chairman, uttered the words, “Vast wasteland.” But the phrase had such resonance almost everybody still knows it, and knows it puts down television.
What they do not remember, or more likely never knew, was that the speech was made in 1961 at a meeting of the National Association of Broadcasters: men and women who made their living-a pretty good one-running television (and radio) stations, producing their programs and getting advertisers to advertise in them.
These were the people squirming in their seats as Minow took them to task for what he saw as their abdication of responsibility and, more than once, threatened them with losing station broadcasting licenses if they didn’t straighten up and fly right.
When you look back on it, nothing came of the speech, except for the phrase that has echoed down through the decades. But those two words made Newton Minow famous, and today, long after he returned to his private law practice, it is what he is known for.
When, after only a couple of years, Minow left the commission, President Kennedy named Lee Loevinger to replace him as commissioner but not as chairman. Loevinger was a former justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court and assistant U. S. attorney.
Loevinger also made a speech, this one to New Jersey broadcasters meeting in Atlantic City, N.J. It got hardly a fraction of the attention that Minow’s did, which I think is too bad, because Loevinger said things that bear repeating.
For example, he said, “The common man has every right to be common.”
Loevinger also said, “There is more nonsense, garbage and hogwash spoken, written and printed about television than about any other subject, with the possible exception of sex.”
At a time when well-known people faulted television for betraying its perceived potential to be the educator and uplifter and democratizer of the patronized masses-this was in 1966-he said:
“Television is not and has no prospect of being either the salvation or the damnation of mankind. It will not and should not take the place or perform the function of the school, the church, the home or even the parents.”
His speech also dealt with talk, talk, talk. It would be a quarter-century before we would have all-news cable with endless talk, argument, call-in and bad tempers, so he commented on talk radio. But what he said was remarkably prescient, worth taking to heart today, especially for those of us who regard these programs with despair:
“Never in history have so many ordinary citizens had so much opportunity to speak so freely to so wide a community. What is said is often the product of ignorance or prejudice, and many are annoyed, but I count such opportunity a contribution to democracy.”
Something to ponder when Bill O’Reilly gets your choler up or Chris Matthews completes everybody else’s sentences.
Lee Loevinger did not see a “vast wasteland” when he watched television. I get the sense that he didn’t watch all that much. So far as I could tell, the only paper to cover his speech was Variety. I kept that short clipping yellowing in my desk for years. Then I tracked him down at the Washington law firm where he went after leaving the commission, and he kindly sent me the whole speech. This is how it ended:
“The one thing that all concerned with the mass media must recognize is that the common man has every right to be common. The common man is entitled to prefer and demand entertainment that meets his common taste. To attempt to transform a mass medium into a means of expression for the elite is a kind of bowdlerization as presumptuous as it is futile.”
I did not ask Judge Loevinger whether he was answering or refuting Chairman Minow. But whether consciously or not, he was disputing some great and seminal figures in the history of broadcasting. Like Edward R. Murrow, who famously called the television camera a “thousand-pound pencil” with which the public could learn the truth. Like Sylvester L. (“Pat”) Weaver, who once proclaimed his hope that if civilization were wiped out in a nuclear war, those who survived-the “rubble risers” he called them-would be better equipped to face life because they had watched NBC television.
This kind of blue-nosed thinking held television only as an instrument of social good. But the same kind of thinking led Mr. Minow, when confronted with the medium as it was, to deem it a “vast wasteland.”
A lawyer and legal researcher named Daniel Brenner wrote: “Just who authored the phrase `vast wasteland’ is part of FCC lore. …What was uncovered was that [Minow’s] assistants … urged him to delete the phrase as being too much of a value judgment. After conferring with his wife, Minow kept it in and made history.”
I propose that history also remember Judge Lee Loevinger and “The common man has every right to be common.”
Reuven Frank was president of NBC News from 1968-73 and 1982-84.