Newton Minow was in Washington to mark the 50th anniversary of the “vast wasteland” speech that shook up the broadcasting business, leading to the first educational children’s programming and eventually to PBS.
The first draft of the speech that caused such controversy and continues to reverberate described a “vast wasteland of junk,” he recalled Monday evening. Newly installed as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission during the Kennedy administration and just 35 years old, Minow had been advised by his general counsel to take out the offending passage. The broadcast industry was already reeling, rocked by scandals -- radio payola and rigged TV quiz shows. Murder and mayhem dominated television programming. The evening newscasts were a scant 15 minutes long. “What I wanted was a debate in the country, and that started it,” said Minow.
He succeeded in getting more educational programming, and built the stations that would eventually become PBS. In a conversation with current FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and moderated by Frank Sesno, formerly with CNN and now at George Washington University, Minow said he is baffled by the current assault on PBS and the GOP’s attempt to end federal funding for public television. “My position is very clear, it should never be partisan,” he said as he launched into a story about PBS’s origins.
When Richard Nixon was elected in 1968, Minow got a call from Dean Burch, who had chaired Barry Goldwater’s campaign four years earlier. “I think I just made a big mistake,” Burch said, explaining he had turned down Nixon’s offer to become FCC chairman. He had a successful law practice in Tucson, his kids were in school, and he had a swimming pool, he told Minow. “Call him back,” Minow said. “This is an extraordinary opportunity for public service.”
He did, and soon after, Minow got another call. “Okay, Big Shot, you took me into this, I need some ideas.” Minow happened to be in New York where Joan Ganz Cooney was presenting her concept for Sesame Street. “What does she look like?” Burch exclaimed, recognizing the name as the Joan Ganz he had asked to marry him when they were students at the University of Arizona. Burch was on board. He also took her to see Goldwater, who had returned to the Senate that year after his failed presidential bid. He too recognized her maiden name. Her father had given him his first contribution when he ran for office. “What can I do for you?” Goldwater asked.
Cooney had applied for funding from the Health, Education and Welfare Department and been turned down by Secretary Caspar Weinberger, whose budget-cutting zeal had earned him the name “Cap the Knife.” Goldwater picked up the phone and called Weinberger. “You’ve got your money,” he told Cooney.
“And that was a Republican,” Minow exclaimed. It is how Washington works. PBS, he says, “was an afterthought,” launched only after commercial television was entrenched. In Europe and in Japan, public programming came first and is taken as a given. Minow no longer thinks TV is a vast wasteland, says he’s a news junkie and watches it all the time. He applauds the many choices available, but still believes there is a need for public television. “Why have libraries when we have bookstores? Why have parks when we have country clubs?” he asks with the air of a man who thinks the answer is self-evident.
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