Wednesday, May 25, 2011

This Writing Life

Just returned from a trip to Washington, D.C., where I participated in the second annual Compleat Biographer Conference sponsored by the Biographers International Organization. I was lucky enough to be invited to sit on a panel discussing "Writing Biography Pieces for Magazines and Online."

It was somewhat overwhelming to sit in the ballroom at the National Press Club alongside a couple of hundred other people who had written or were interested in writing biography. During lunch alone I sat at a table with a woman writing a biography of the physicist who helped leak the secret of the atomic bomb to the Russians (Klaus Fuchs), the head of the manuscripts department at the Library of Congress, and the editor of Consumer Reports (Greg Daugherty, who was alson on the panel discussion with me and Wil Haygood of the Washington Post. Impressive company indeed.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Minow, Martin, and the "Vast Wasteland" Speech

On May 9, 1961, Newton Minow, recently appointed as the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission by President John F. Kennedy, spoke before a convention of the National Association of Broadcasters.

During his talk, Minow had said: "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."

The "vast wasteland" phrase, using imagery inspired by T. S. Eliot’s 1922 poem “The Waste Land,” has also been commemorated in numerous newspaper and magazine articles, editorials, cartoons, books, and documentaries. Minow himself had to endure being lampooned by Hollywood producer Sherwood Schwartz, who named the doomed ship (SS Minnow) from the television series Gilligin’s Island after him. Minow’s daughters have joked to him that on his tombstone will be engraved the words: “On to a Vaster Wasteland.” 

Minow, who has said he expects the phrase will be included in the first sentence of his obituary when he dies, probably could not have realized the lasting effect of his speech, especially considering the reaction he received from one audience member. He recalled that he was talking with LeRoyCollins, NAB president and a former governor of Florida, after finishing his remarks when a member of the audience approached the two men and said to Minow, “I didn’t particularly like your speech.” The man left, only to return a few minutes later to say to Minow, “The more I thought about it, your speech was really awful.” The man retreated, only to return for a final time to comment: “Mr. Minow, that was the worst speech I ever heard in my whole life!” Collins attempted to console Minow, gently putting his arm around the FCC chairman’s shoulder and telling him, “Don’t let him upset you, Newt. That man has no mind of his own. He just repeats everything he hears.

Although the phrase "vast wasteland" has become famous, one person's contributions is not well known. It was the work of one of the main authors of the speech--Hoosier journalist and writer John Bartlow Martin.

In the spring of 1961 Martin, a former Indianapolis Times reporter considered by his peers as "the ablest crime reporter in America, had come to Washington, D.C., to do legwork for a series of articles on television for the Saturday Evening Post. Martin had worked on the presidential campaigns of Adlai Stevenson and Kennedy, and while in Washington he wrote speeches for Robert Kennedy, Bill Blair (the U.S. ambassador to Denmark), and Minow. "Of the three speeches," Martin noted in his autobiography It Seems Like Only Yesterday, "Newt Minow's had the most impact. It was for Newt an important speech, perhaps the most important he would ever make, for he intended to try to reform television and the FCC alone had the power to do it."

To gain perspective about television’s quality, and its effect on American society, Martin decided to spend almost an entire day, twenty hours, watching programs. He woke up at 5:30 a.m. at his Highland Park home, ate a hearty breakfast, tuned his family’s set to Chicago’s WNBQ Channel 5, sat down, and kept his eyes glued to the screen until the NBC affiliate ended its broadcast day at 1:52 a.m. “The channel and the day were chosen at random,” Martin noted. 

After watching Dave Garroway on the Today program, Martin felt besieged by a seemingly endless stream of game shows, programs that had disappeared from the airwaves for a time after the quiz show scandals. By the end of the morning Martin had also witnessed approximately seventy commercials advertising such products as soap, detergents, lipstick, orange juice, salad dressing, baby food, hair cream, hair spray, vitamins, soup, headache remedies, bleach, frozen food, appliances, and patent medicines. “The commercials, loud and frequent and long, seemed stupefying,” he said. 

In the afternoon, after having watched television for nine straight hours, Martin observed that, except for news broadcasts and two brief interviews on the Today program, “nobody on Channel 5 had discussed a single idea.” He persevered, enduring such banal hit programs as Sing Along with Mitch and The Jack Paar Show, as well as the violence of a show called Official Detective, which featured several fistfights, three shootings, four killings, and a suicide. “After Paar,” Martin laconically noted, “it was a pleasure.” 

All in all, he wrote in a draft of the article, what he had seen had been “a vast wasteland of junk.” Obviously, Martin added, no one would normally have watched television as he had done, just as few people would have sat down and in one day read an entire issue, cover to cover, of a magazine such as the Post. “Nonetheless,” he said, “this is what was sent over the airwaves by one television station, owned by a leading network in a big city. The station is licensed by the Government to use the people’s air; this is how it used it that day

In writing Minow’s speech, Martin said he suggested he say to the NAB: “I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air . . . and keep your eyes glued to the set until the station goes off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland of junk.”

In addition to Martin’s contribution for his NAB speech, Minow also had assistance from Tedson Meyers, an FCC aide; Stanley Frankel, his brother-in-law and a former newspaper reporter and magazine publisher; and others. Of all the drafts he received, however, “the best one by far” came from Martin, said Minow, who noted he was a much better editor than he was a writer. 

Minow appreciated Martin’s work, writing him on April 17: “I cannot, cannot, cannot thank you enough. I’m deeply moved by your giving me so much of your thought and time, and the country will benefit from it—and so will I!”

Minow’s editing skill came in handy, and ensured him everlasting fame, when he cut two crucial words from one of Martin’s drafts. The original draft, which owed much to Martin’s experiences watching Channel 5, included the following: “I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there . . . and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station goes off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland of junk.” According to Martin, Minow “had the wit” to cut “of junk.” 

Although Martin originated the “vast wasteland” phrase, it took nothing away from Minow, who, as Martin stated, also had the “courage to throw it [the phrase] in the teeth of the broadcasters and thus show the public the need for reform.”

Writing the speech did change the way Martin handled his series for the Post. Although he stuck to his lead on watching television for twenty hours, he had to change the ending of the passage that used "vast wasteland," not as his own summary of what he had seen, but instead writing, "This is what Newton N. Minow, the beleagurered new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has called 'a vast wasteland.'"

Ironically, Minow’s speech, which left many broadcasting executives looking as if they were “refugees from an atomic blast,” reported one magazine, received attention for all the wrong reasons and was “badly misinterpreted,” noted Minow. “Today that speech is remembered for two words—but not the two I intended to be remembered,” Minow later said. “The words we tried to advance were ‘public interest.’ To me, the public interest meant, and still means, that we should constantly ask: What can television do for our country? For the common good? For the American people?” 

Minow said he wanted the broadcasters to know that there was a new team in town who really cared about the public interest, and that if television failed in that area they would find themselves in difficulty with the government. At the same time, he added, the FCC stood ready to back television executives if they decided to tackle controversial issues.

When he returned home after his speech, Minow received two telephone calls. The first came from President Kennedy’s father, Joseph, from whom the FCC chairman expected “sharp criticism.” Instead, the senior Kennedy told Minow that he had just finished talking to the president and had told his son that Minow’s speech “was the best one since his [JFK’s] inaugural address on January 20th. Keep it up; if anyone gives you any trouble, call me!” 

The second call came from Edward R. Murrow, the former newsman and commentator, who had joined the Kennedy administration as director of the U.S. Information Agency. “You gave the same speech I gave two years ago,” Murrow told Minow. “Good for you—you’ll get a lot of heat and criticism, but don’t lose your courage!” Those messages, said Minow, gave him “the backbone” he needed to focus the FCC’s mission on requiring that broadcasters serve the public, as well as their private, interest, and to increase choices for American viewers. 

Monday, May 9, 2011

Vraciu Talk in Highland

Calumet Region readers can learn more about one of their area's heroes at a program on World War II fighter ace Alex Vraciu I'll be giving at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, May 12, at the Highland branch of the Lake County Public Library, 2841 Jewett Avenue, Highland.

My book Fighter Pilot: The World War II Career of Alex Vraciu, copies of which will be available for sale at the talk, examines how Vraciu, possessed with keen eyesight, quick reflexes, excellent shooting instincts, and a knack for finding his opponent's weak spot, became skilled in the deadly game of destroying the enemy in the skies over the Pacific Ocean. For a period of four months in 1944, Vraciu stood as the leading ace in the U.S. Navy. He shot down nineteen enemy airplanes in the air, destroyed an additional twenty-one on the ground, and sank a large Japanese merchant ship with a well-placed bomb hit.

To register for the free program, call (219) 972-7353.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

New Review of RFK Book

I am often astonished about how long it takes for a book to be reviewed in academic journals. Case in point: a new review of my book Robert F. Kennedy and the 1968 Indiana Primary. Although the book was published in spring 2008 by Indiana University Press, it has just been reviewed in the June 2011 issue of Presidential Studies Quarterly.

The review, by Joseph A. Palermo of California State University, the author of two books on RFK, is an insightful look at my book and one that I am very pleased with. Palermo notes that my "account of the 1968 Indiana primary is a highly readable monograph that contextualizes the campaign quite well," and concludes his review by indicating that the book "is a valuable contribution to RFK scholarship and sheds new light on the inner workings of one of Kennedy's most important political endeavors."