Wednesday, May 11, 2011

"Vast Wasteland" Speech

This week marked an important anniversary in broadcast history. 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 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 phrase "vast wasteland" has become famous, and the 50th anniversary has been commemorated with C-Span special programs and articles in a number of newspapers. Lost in all of this is the author 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 televison and the FCC alone had the power to do it."

Martin had begun research for his articles on television by he began the series by describing a day watching television for twenty straight hours, concluding that it had presented “a vast wasteland of junk.”

In writing Minow’s speech, Martin said he suggested he say to the National Association of Broadcasters: “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.” Martin goes on to note that in editing the speech, 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.'"

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