That’s the question that Newton Minow asked on May 9, 1961 when he addressed the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington, DC.
In his first public address after he took over as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Mr. Minow didn’t pull any punches. He made it clear that in his role at the FCC he was going to make darn sure that broadcasters operated in “the public interest.”
What is meant by operating in “the public interest?” That’s been open to interpretation since those words were written down. Here’s how Mr. Minow defined them:
“Some say the public interest is merely what interests the public. I disagree. And so does your distinguished (NAB) president, Governor Collins, who said ‘Broadcasting to serve the public interest, must have a soul and a conscience, a burning desire to excel, as well as to sell; the urge to build the character, citizenship, and intellectual stature of people, as well as to expand the gross national product….By no means do I imply that broadcasters disregard the public interest…But a much better job can be done, and should be done.’ I could not agree more with Governor Collins.”
Mr. Minow also told the radio broadcasters in the room that the FCC wasn’t going to go to sleep at the switch on them; they were still listening, but that most of the controversies and cross-currents in broadcast programming were swirling around TV and that’s what he planned to address in this speech.
“When television is good, nothing – not theater, not the magazines or newspapers – nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse,” said Minow.
He then threw out this challenge to television broadcasters:
“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.”
Mr. Minow is 89 and living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. On the 50th anniversary of his famous speech, he was interviewed by James Warren of the Chicago Tribune. Minow was 35 years old when he took over as chairman of the FCC under President Kennedy. He told Warren that he couldn’t have anticipated the impact his speech would have. Minow’s severe censure of TV’s “procession of game shows, violence, audience participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western badmen, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence and cartoons” remains highly “radioactive” to this day.
If you’re a fan of the television show “Gilligan’s Island” you might not have realized that the boat that sank was coyly named after the FCC chairman; however spelling it S. S. Minnow. Does that give you some idea of how distasteful having their medium called “a vast wasteland” was to the TV men of that day?
Mr. Minow’s own daughters joke that their dad’s tombstone might be inscribed with the words “On to a vaster wasteland.”
In 1998, President Clinton appointed a commission to review “the public interest” on the eve of the arrival of Digital Television. That commission issued a 160-age report on December 18, 1998.
In 2015, “the public interest” issue has been addressed with respect to the Internet. Again, the FCC under its current chairman Thomas Wheeler has come forward with a plan that has been as well received by the “Internet men” of today as Mr. Minow’s assessment of TV back in 1961. Here’s what the FCC decided:
Adopted on February 26, 2015, the FCC’s Open Internet rules are designed to protect free expression and innovation on the Internet and promote investment in the nation’s broadband networks. The Open Internet rules are grounded in the strongest possible legal foundation by relying on multiple sources of authority, including: Title II of the Communications Act and Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. As part of this decision, the Commission also refrains (or “forbears”) from enforcing provisions of Title II that are not relevant to modern broadband service. Together Title II and Section 706 support clear rules of the road, providing the certainty needed for innovators and investors, and the competitive choices and freedom demanded by consumers.
The new rules apply to both fixed and mobile broadband service. This approach recognizes advances in technology and the growing significance of mobile broadband Internet access in recent years. These rules will protect consumers no matter how they access the Internet, whether on a desktop computer or a mobile device.
The public interest standard has long provided guidance for promoting greater diversity in content, political debate, access, service to local communities, education, diversity and equal employment. The communications revolution will continue to challenge policymakers to ensure operating in “the public interest” remains.