Former FCC Chairman Newton Minow died a few days ago and outlets dug deep into their archives to dust off their pre‐written obits for the 97‐year‐old who lived a full and eventful life. I had the opportunity to be on a panel with Minow back in 2021, which was a somewhat surreal experience given how few of the people that I covered in my book on broadcasting in the 1960s are still around. I have a few thoughts about his legacy to share with you.
Let’s start with a positive note. Minow often had solid foresight. For instance, he was right when he told JFK that launching the first telecom satellite in 1962 was a bigger deal than landing a man on the moon. We’ve since sent twelve men to the moon and might eventually send more. But in terms of the effects on our everyday lives, manned moon missions pale in comparison to the 11,139 satellite launches over the same time period (and the prospect of tens of thousands more in the near term).
But that’s not what Minow is generally remembered for, although the fact that he is remembered at all is remarkable given how few FCC commissioners that even relatively well‐informed members of the public are familiar with. Minow’s legacy is inextricably linked with the only speech in the history of the FCC that managed to worm its way into the public consciousness, when in 1961 he declared that television was a “vast wasteland” full of “blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder,” westerns, gangsters, and cartoons.
Minow’s proposition that tv was a “vast wasteland” became the implicit framing for much television regulation over the next half century, including the creation of public television. He believed that commercialized television programming was not just subpar but actually dangerous, especially to children. As he testified to Congress in 1991, “In 1961 I worried that my children would not benefit much from television, but in 1991 I worry that my grandchildren will actually be harmed by it.”
In this regard, Minow was very much a man of his time, his views an artifact of the counter‐counter‐cultural moral panics of both the 1960s and 1990s. Tipper Gore complained about metal music and hiphop to Congress, and we got parental warning stickers on cassettes. Minow worried about children seeing “25,000 murders” on tv before turning 18, and we got V‑chips in all our tvs. (No kidding; your tv still has one.) And there is an echo of this kind of technocratic nanny‐Statism in the ongoing debates over imposing new regulations on the internet, like prohibiting targeted advertising to impressionable youths or even banning their access to social media entirely.
It’s worth reflecting on the two core mistakes that Minow made — and which his politically progressive but temperamentally conservative descendants often continue to make — when it comes to mass media. First, he was (mostly) wrong to call television a vast wasteland in 1961. Entertainment is good, actually. In his famous speech, Minow doesn’t bother actually *proving* that entertainment is harmful to children; he simply assumes that his audience will agree with him. And yes, there will always be cultural critics like Minow and Neil Postman who worry about the vulgar amusements of the common man, but I think they mistake their personal preferences and antipathies as representative of the public interest.
Bear in mind that television in 1961 was still a young medium. It wasn’t until 1954 that a majority of American households even had a television. Parents responded in predictable fashion to a new technology popular with their children, both grateful for the break as their kids watched Howdy Doody and worried that it would rot their minds and morals. It didn’t. There’s strong evidence that moderate consumption of television is not harmful for kids, and even in larger doses any negative effects appear minor and/or correlative.
Of course, Minow couldn’t have known that, and freaking out about new technologies and their affects on children is a rite of passage for parents and bureaucrats alike. In the 18th century, it was novels that were leading children astray by promoting loose morals and lying fictions. In the early 20th century, the “tell‐tale signs of corruption” included well‐thumbed pulp paperbacks that tempted schoolboys to fantasize about flying to alien worlds instead of doing their homework and becoming good, sane, sober citizens. Minow’s style of parentalism is both very old and boringly expected.
And like with novels and pulp fiction, it’s not just that westerns and gangster shows and cartoons are harmless; they can be actively good. Consider the animated Netflix show BoJack Horseman. It’s won award after award for its darkly comedic exploration of the hollowness of fame, struggles with mental health, generational trauma, and the…
Read More: R.I.P. Newton Minow