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The Wasteland Spreads


“When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there for a day without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.”

On May 9, 1961, when Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Norman Minow said that in a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, it made a lot of people angry. Because when you criticize what people come home, sit on the couch, and enjoy every night, you’re really criticizing them. In truth, Minow was an elitist, who was saying to the great unwashed masses, if you enjoy this, it just proves how stupid you are.

Kind of like what Hillary Clinton said to the deplorables.

People were not happy with Minow over that speech. Author Ayn Rand criticized Minow for using his government position in an attempt to censor and influence what people watch. And the producers of Gilligan’s Island named the boat that left on a three-hour tour and never returned the S.S. Minnow in a sarcastic tribute to the man. Despite all the controversy over his speech, Minow’s description of a “vast wasteland” became a term that is still remembered more than 55 years later. And since that time the “wasteland” has grown even bigger.


I would say that if Minow weren’t alive today, he would be spinning in his grave, but the truth is, he is still alive – 91-years-old – and still practicing law. And half-a-century later, the wasteland is bigger than ever.

Minow was a politically savvy political operative before he became FCC chairman. He worked on both unsuccessful presidential campaigns of Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956, then later on the successful 1960 campaign to elect President John. F. Kennedy president. Kennedy appointed him to lead the FCC.

Minow also backed Barrack Obama when he ran for president in 2008. In fact, it was Minow who hired Obama back in 1988 to work as a summer associate at Minow’s firm, Sidley Austin LLP. And that’s where Obama met his future wife, Michelle Robinson.

I think Minow was right about television. It does cater to the lowest-common-denominator. And the more it does so, the lower the lowest common denominator gets. Now you have shows that feature people of all races and backgrounds, behaving badly and becoming semi-famous for it. And as the lowest common denominator sinks ever lower, society in general follows it down.

We live in mean-spirited times, and I do give TV credit for much of that.

On the other hand, you always have people like Minow going around, telling other people what they should and should not like. What they should read, what they should watch, and how they should feel about things. That’s fine for a private citizen, but when the government starts deciding what people should like and not like, it is overstepping its bounds.

I do think Minow was right about television. But I also think he probably should have just minded his own darn business.

— George Lee Cunningham