‘Wasteland’ Revisited

Newton Minow looks back at his FCC tempest and forward to the future of televised debates
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Related: The Other Speech

Former FCC chairman Newton Minowonly served as FCC Chairman for two and a half years, but he may be the TV industry’s most famous (or infamous) regulator. That reputation is due to his “vast wasteland” speech at the 1961 National Association of Broadcasters convention in Washington. That speech, and that phrase, has remained stuck in the public consciousness—and in broadcasters’ collective craw—for more than half a century.

But Minow was also instrumental in early testing of the pay-TV business and creating noncommercial television, and advocated for a nonpolitical commission, something that seems a distant memory at a time when political fissures appear to widen with every big vote at today’s FCC. And he is considered one of the founding fathers of televised political debates.

Minow, who turned 90 years old earlier this year, still commutes three days a week to law firm Sidley Austin in Chicago’s downtown Loop. His office is still filled with mementos from his D.C. tenure, pictures of himself with former presidents and more treasured ones of his burgeoning family. A TV in the corner helps him keep up with the news...unless it is summertime, when thoughts (and channels) turn to his beloved Cubs baseball team. Warm weather used to mean golf, but he hung up his clubs a couple of years ago.

A member of the board of directors of the Commission on Presidential Debates, Minow has once again plugged back into the media zeitgeist in an election year unlike any other. He has long been a driving force in the creation and refinement of televised presidential debates—those between the eventual party choices, not the current round of nominee debates that have become the center of so much media attention of late. Minow calls these initial scrums “deplorable,” though he does see promise in the town hall format.

Looking back to his moment in the spotlight, the one people still readily quote 55 years after the fact, Minow maintains that he came not to bury the medium back in 1961, but—at least in some fashion—to praise it. Among the less-remembered passages from that speech is this one: “It may also come as a surprise to some of you, but I want you to know that you have my admiration and my respect.” But that overture was followed by a stern critique that called the emerging medium to the better angels of its programming nature. The fault, he said, lay in a medium whose programmers had become enamored of the novelty of television and had saturated the airwaves with cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers and, well, more cowboys and Indians and cops and robbers. It was a medium he felt offered so much more promise than was being delivered. B&C bore witness to the predictably angry reaction of broadcasters.

The former chairman spoke with B&C Washington bureau chief John Eggerton about those and many other topics, including a decades-long rift with the magazine. Minow says he used to read Broadcasting magazine (the forerunner to B&C) before he joined the FCC, but stopped reading it after the editorial page excoriated the Peabody Awards Committee for giving him an award.

You are still a member of the Commission on Presidential Debates, correct?

I have been on it from the beginning. [CBS president] Frank Stanton had a great deal to do with this. I was involved in the 1960 [Kennedy-Nixon] debates before I went to the FCC.

I was a law partner of Adlai Stevenson [who ran unsuccessfully for president]. Stevenson had written an article calling for some kind of televised debates in future presidential campaigns and Congress was considering at the same time what do to about Sec. 315 [the equal time rule] because broadcasters were pushing Congress to allow debates. Stevenson was asked to testify before the senate and as the junior member of the law firm I was given the job of developing his testimony. The end result was that Congress suspended 315 for the 1960 presidential election, which led to the Kennedy/Nixon debates. My college roommate, Sandy Vanocur, then the NBC White House correspondent, is the only other person from those debates still living.

But you also worked with longtime FCC attorney and public-interest advocate Henry Geller and Dick Wiley to get that temporary exception made permanent.

Right. There were no debates in ’64, ’68 or ’72. Then, Henry Geller, who went to law school with me, and Dick Wiley, who was then FCC chairman, all by a strange coincidence graduates of Northwestern Law School, worked together and the FCC, without Congress, reinterpreted Sec. 315 to exempt news events, which led to the 1976 debates. The League of Women Voters undertook to organize the debates. They went to Frank Stanton at CBS and asked him to organize them as he had done in 1960. He said he couldn’t, but recommended me. The League asked me and I negotiated the ’76 and ’80 debates. I was involved a little bit in ’84, but I could see that the debates were going to end because the League and the party were no longer talking. I took a leave from my firm and I went to Harvard to the Kennedy School Institute of Politics and that’s when we organized what became the commission on presidential debates.

What was the rift with the League?

I negotiated the 1976 and 1980 debates. I did not negotiate the ’84 debates. I think the fundamental issue of that time was that the candidates, in my opinion very wrongly, insisted on a right of vetoing the moderators.

The League came to me and asked me to organize the ’76 debates and I asked: ‘How did you get to me?’ And they said, ‘We went to Frank Stanton, who had organized the 1960 debates and he said he couldn’t do it but recommended you.’ So that is how I got involved.

I said to the League at the time, ‘I think you are going at this the wrong way. We have to a make this bipartisan. I’m a Democrat, you’ve got to get a Republican.’ ‘Who would you suggest?’ I suggested Dean Burch who had been Barry Goldwater’s campaign chairman and chair of the Republican National Committee and chair of the FCC. So I called and it turned out he was working at the White House for President Ford. So, I asked him about the debates and he said he couldn’t be involved because he was still working at the White House. I said at least find out if the president is interested. And he called back and said the president wants to debate. And I said, ‘Gee, that’s wonderful. We have never had a sitting president debate.’ And he said, ‘Newt, when you’re 39 points behind in the polls what the hell else are you going to do?!’ Then I called Jimmy Carter’s lawyer and he said, ‘Jimmy wants to debate.’ I said, ‘Do you mind telling me why?’ He said, ‘He is confident that he is a good debater and he doesn’t think the country knows him, so even though he is way ahead in the polls he still wants to debate.’ And that is how the 1976 debates came to be.

Is there anything new on the presidential debate front?

We’ve added three experienced broadcasters to the Presidential Debate Commission: Jim Lehrer, Bob Schieffer and Charlie Gibson. And we are in the process of getting their advice about the formats of the 2016 presidential debates.

Are you considering changing the format?

This all goes back to 1960, when journalists asked the questions and there were time limits. And the same thing happened in 1976 and throughout. In 2012, at the suggestion of Jim Lehrer at the time, we moved it to 15-minute segments trying to deal with one subject for the 15 minutes. And we are reexamining that now because the public is not really served by the short, quick answers. I watched the [Feb. 18 CNN Democratic] town hall and I thought that was very effective.

You have not had anything to do with the primary debates?

No.

What is your view of how these have unfolded?

I think for the most part, they have been deplorable. You have so many Republican candidates. You can’t have debates with so many people. But also I think unfortunately some of the debate sponsors have focused on promoting their own stars and over-commercialized them and the primary debates to me have been a disappointment for the most part. I would make the point that the more debates the better, as far as I’m concerned. But I think some of them have been efforts by whoever was the sponsor to promote themselves more than to educate the public. For many journalists it’s their moment in the sun and they want to make the most of it.

You have never been much of a fan of ratings-driven programming. Do you think that is what makes the networks want to promote the nominee debates almost like action movies?

I do. The presidential debates are not sponsored. They are public service time. There are no commercials, and are a different kettle of fish.

Should there be a primary debate commission?

The Republicans tried this time because they had an unfortunate experience in 2012 when they felt the debates had hurt Mitt Romney’s chances to win the election so the Republican National Committee tried to take a hand in them. I don’t know if they regret it or not. Let me be clear, I think there should be more debates. The more debates the better, but they should not be the kind of things we have seen too often with the Republican debates.

I understand you have recently been active in pushing for enhanced disclosure of political ads.

Henry [Geller] and I have been involved in this. We have written a number of op-eds and have even filed a petition with the FCC. I think that the law is clear. The disclosure of who is paying for an ad is very important and I believe the FCC has not been as aggressive as it should be in enforcing the law.

Why do you think Chairman Wheeler has been reluctant to tighten the rules on disclosure?

I think it is because Congress has been very difficult about it. I think the FCC should tell Congress that if they don’t want us to enforce the law they should change the law.

I understand you are a big TV fan. How many sets do you have?

We have one in almost every room. I am a TV junkie. I have been from the beginning and still am.

You talked in your famous 1961 NAB speech about shows that you liked—Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, The Twilight Zone—shows you found “wonderfully entertaining.” Anything you watch today that falls into that category?

I love Madam Secretary. I think the best program on television is CBS Sunday Morning. I watch all the news shows and sports, and I watch a lot of public broadcasting.

But you are more than just a fan of public broadcasting.

I am the former chairman of PBS and a former chairman of WTTW Chicago. When I went to the FCC in 1961, I came from Chicago, where we had WTTW. President Kennedy came from Boston, where there was WGBH. We assumed, erroneously, that most cities had public television stations. It was to my astonishment that I found the nation’s capital didn’t have a station, that New York City, the biggest city in the country, didn’t have a station. Los Angeles, the second biggest city in the country, didn’t have a station. There were no stations in many, many of the major American communities and we set about to fix that. And I think we have succeeded. Largely because of the FCC’s efforts, we now have something like over 200 public television stations.

Back in 1961 when you were approving pay-TV testing, you were going to give it a chance to prove it could offer “useful service.” How has it done?

Certainly it has worked. My main thrust was to enlarge choice. I thought that the limited choice available in 1961 was wrong and that every new technology, particularly cable, UHF, satellite, should be opened up to provide more choice. And I believe we succeeded.

The major change, and I am surprised more people don’t talk about this, is that when broadcasting began, the idea was that broadcasting would go through the air, and phone calls would go over the wire. That was the concept. Today, most people watch their television by wire [or satellite] and most people make their telephone calls over the air. The first person who put that in so many words was the man who ran the media lab at MIT [Nicholas Negroponte]. That’s a powerful observation.

When I first went to the FCC, a couple of really smart broadcasters told me that, eventually, people would be watching television by wire and that’s what’s happened. We didn’t foresee that telephone calls would go over the air, but there has been a massive technical revolution.

Given all that choice, how would you reassess it? It is vast, certainly…

The main thing is that everybody has been provided a choice. If you are a sports junkie, you have plenty of sports. If you are a news junkie, you’ve got plenty of news. If you like children’s television, you’ve got a lot of choices for your kids. So, I think giving people choice should be the fundamental aim of the government’s regulation of communications.

Now, we paid a big price for that, in that now you have people not sharing the same information across the country. In 1961, most families would watch television in one room together and see the same programs at the same time and that unified the nation. That was particularly evident, brilliantly so, when President Kennedy was assassinated. For four days the country had a common experience bringing us together watching television. Unfortunately today, people are not watching the same thing and don’t share the same experiences to the same extent.

You criticized broadcast programming, but you also felt it was an important source of news and local information. How are they doing in terms of that public service obligation?

Here in Chicago, the local news for the most part is news about shooting, crime, fires, disasters. That is the bulk of the local news.

But if that is what is happening?

I have for years taught at [Northwestern’s] Medill School of Journalism. The traditional definition of news is that if a dog bites a man that’s not news, but if a man bites a dog that’s news. The fact of the matter is that the shootings and the fires, that is what’s happening every minute, but the good news gets ignored. The first President Bush appointed me to a commission after the first Gulf War examining whether women should serve in military combat. We had public meetings and on the commission there were some people on one extreme—that women shouldn’t be in the military and certainly shouldn’t be in combat—and the other was the opposite. And the bulk of them, including me, were in the center trying to figure out what was fair and best. Whenever our meetings ended, the television cameras zoomed in on two ends, the two extremes, and had no interest in talking to the center. Zero. And that is what’s happened, unfortunately, with too much television news.

Controversy is regarded as news.

What is government’s role in television?

I think there is a role in making sure that we have public television, in making sure we have cable television, that we have more television and more choices. I think that is the government’s role. Not to enforce or tell people what they have to do, but to provide more opportunities for different people to offer different choices for viewers.

You were only on the FCC two years. Why did you leave?

Two and a half. I couldn’t afford it. I was going broke. I had a young family and had made up my mind, looking back it was kind of dumb to do this, but I made up my mind when I left that the only job I would take was one that had been offered to me before I went in the government. I didn’t want anyone to ever say that I had used the job to go into the communications business, so I went back to a job I’d had before.

What was that?

I had been the outside lawyer for Encyclopedia Britannica and I went back there to become the inside lawyer.

What did you like most about being FCC chairman?

I loved the Kennedy Administration and I loved the Kennedys and the whole attitude of bringing a new generation to government. I learned a lot and I liked dealing with Congress. I had three major pieces of legislation that all passed. The All-Channel Act, the educational television bill and the satellite bill. President Kennedy asked me, how the hell did you do that. I said: “Mr. President, the issues we deal with are not partisan issues. I’ve kept partisanship out of everything. I will not allow a partisan vote at the FCC. We are by law a nonpartisan agency. We keep politics out of it.”

You said “legislation,” but the FCC doesn’t pass bills.

The FCC had a role in developing the bills, which Congress debated and considered. In fact with the satellite bill I think I testified 13 times.

What did you like least about being chairman?

I couldn’t stand the bureaucracy. I couldn’t stand the idea that you couldn’t manage your budget the way you wanted to manage it. I couldn’t stand the fact that you couldn’t hire and fire people as you can in the private sector. I hated the bureaucracy terribly.

You are a big supporter of the current president.

President Obama met his wife working in our law firm. My daughter, Martha, is dean of Harvard Law School. She had Barack Obama as a student and she called me one day, and she knew that our firm doesn’t hire first-year law students for summer internships, and Barack had only finished his first year, but she called me and said you ought to take a look at him, he’s exceptional. So, I called our hiring partner and it turned out he had already been hired before I called because they saw the same thing. When he got to the firm, Sidley Austin, they put Michelle Robinson in the role of his day-to-day supervisor, and that’s how Michelle and Barack met. We offered Barack a job. I was one of the managing partners at the time and Barack came in to see me to tell me he couldn’t take the job. I asked why. He said, ‘I hope this won’t upset you, but I am going to take Michelle with me.’ I said. ‘You no-good, rotten, worthless piece of…’ and he interrupted me and said, ‘We’re going to get married.’ I said, ‘That’s different.’

What should I have asked you that I didn’t?

Well, I’ll tell you what I told the president. Of all the jobs in the government, the one that I think has the greatest impact every hour, every day, every month, every year, on the public is the FCC. If you want to make a telephone call, if you want to send an email, if you want to watch television, if you want to listen to the radio, whatever, the FCC is involved. It is an extremely important agency.

Any advice to the current chairman?

I think the current chairman is doing a very good job.

Can you tell us about your rift with B&C?

After I left the government I was a Peabody judge for many years, and I told them that when I was awarded the Peabody [back in 1962] that Broadcasting magazine said that Peabody had disgraced itself. I called [magazine founder] Sol Taishoff and said, ‘Stop delivering Broadcasting magazine to my house. I’ll never read it again and as far as I am concerned we’re not going to cooperate in any way with you as far as the news is concerned.’ And I meant it.

Well, when we print this, we will send you a copy—which you don’t have to read.

That’s fair enough.

Related: The Other Speech

Former FCC chairman Newton Minowonly served as FCC Chairman for two and a half years, but he may be the TV industry’s most famous (or infamous) regulator. That reputation is due to his “vast wasteland” speech at the 1961 National Association of Broadcasters convention in Washington. That speech, and that phrase, has remained stuck in the public consciousness—and in broadcasters’ collective craw—for more than half a century.

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