Friday, March 05, 2010

Newton Minow

FCC commissioner Copps tore into the media and the FCC recently. He was at a workshop called "Public Interest in the Digital Age. As it often is with Copps, he was no-holds-barred. He said the under the Bush administration the FCC was:
...under the spell of an ideological deregulatory mind-set that fueled the evisceration or outright elimination of just about every public interest obligation or public interest guideline we had. Much of media began to resemble the vast wasteland that Newton Minow had predicted as early as 1961."
It's a great quote but who the hell is Newton N. Minow? Minow was appointed in 1961 by President Kennedy to chair the Federal Communications Commission. He resigned in1963 and was succeeded by E. William Henry who was said to largely agree with Minow. But was somewhat less quotable. The FCC has almost always stayed out of content questions. Unless obscenity is involved, their saber-rattling peaks with a little charged language and the occasional tsk-tsk. Minows remark was legendary in some circles. American Rhetoric has the audio and complete speech here. Here is the paragraph Copps was referring to:
"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 you 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."
Minow was a strange pick for the FCC. He had some legal experience, and some military background and a little work for the Governor of Illinois. But he had no background in media or communications law. He was friends with Adlai Stevenson. Hey, Nepotism happens. Nonetheless he turned out to be a historical figure in his own way. I think he knew his career there and in politics would be brief so he took the opportunity to tell the truth. Some people agreed, some people disagreed but a conversation had begun. More here and here.