Minow’s Whale of a Speech

Television set
Original photo by Kevin Sullivan

He didn’t get everything right. In 2004, when he heard that a smart young lawyer who’d once worked in his firm wanted to run for Senate from Illinois, Newton Minow asked him, “Are you nuts?”

But exactly fifty years ago, the lawyer who thought Barack Obama shouldn’t run was right about something big. Minow was then JFK’s Federal Communications Commission Chair. His May 9, 1961 speech to the National Association of Broadcasters calling TV a “vast wasteland” not only struck a chord with one memorable phrase, but helped change things.

First things first. There was a speechwriter involved. John Bartlow Martin, the skilled journalist turned speechwriter, apparently did a draft and thought up the phrase “vast wasteland” with help from TS Eliot.

That doesn’t demean Minow’s achievement, any more than it demeans Obama’s because he has writers—one of whom happens to be Minow’s great-nephew. We speechwriters sometimes have to remember that working on a draft doesn’t mean you get full credit. What’s great about the speech was not just what Martin wrote, but what Minow was willing to say.

And on this 50th anniversary of the speech, what’s surprising is how that famous phrase not only made people misinterpret it—“badly,” Minow has said—but ignore the best things about it.

First, in addition to the phrase we remember – originally it read, “wasteland of junk,” but Minow correctly pruned it of excess – the speech is really well-written throughout. There are all kinds of famous speeches that stink except for a memorable phrase. Not this one. It’s concrete, witty, and energetic, with writerly touches all through including an inspirational story.

Of course, Martin gets credit for some of that. Minow gets credit for his startling candor.

How startling? Imagine someone from the Obama administration talking to a traditional villain for Dems—say pharmaceutical industry CEOs. Would anyone tell them that even they wouldn’t use their own products? Here’s Minow, after asking broadcasters to watch TV for a solid day: “You’ll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very few.”  Even when he gives the broadcast industry the obligatory compliments about their business sense, Minow couples that with contempt for what they make. Here he is after praising their “healthy” profits: “I have confidence in your health, but not in your product.”

He also demonstrates an unusual willingness to threaten them by not renewing licenses if they don’t improve. And acknowledging that he’s not telling them exactly what to do to keep those licenses he cracks a joke (“Why should you want to know how close you can come to the edge of the cliff?”).

But along with language and candor, the real achievement in this speech wasn’t how Minow described the problem. It was how he outlined the solution—and the specific steps he wanted to take.

“You must provide a wider range of choices, more diversity, more alternatives,” he says. He calls for more educational television, saying it “has an enormous contribution to make to the future, and I intend to give it a hand along the way.” He is explicit about the power of networks at the expense of local programming, approves of experiments with “pay TV” and the potential of UHF—and sees the wisdom of satellites.

At one point Minow predicts that we might have “twice as many channels operating in cities where now there are only two or three.” And he predicts that some day “a broadcast from New York will be viewed in India as well as in Indiana.”

Broadcasters were apoplectic. “Worst speech I ever heard,” one of them said. And “Gilligan’s Island” producers took revenge a few years later by naming its sinking ship the SS Minnow.

Really, they should have cheered. As much as a speech can do, that combination of vision and Minow’s willingness to act helped bring about a day that far outstrips what he imagined, including profits for them.

Two or three times the channels? We now have fifty times as many; there isn’t a moment in 24 hours when we can’t find something worth watching. International TV? Even the Chilean miners trapped half a mile under the surface of the earth could watch Chile’s national team playing in Ukraine. Yes, live.

Today, Minow, a hale and hearty 85, is a little dismissive of what’s happened in TV since 1961. “We did some great things to be sure … but our failures were equally dramatic,” he wrote recently.

He’s right about the need to look ahead, and his suggestions. But he shouldn’t give short shrift to what has changed.

We sometimes remember a speech for one memorable phrase. But we also remember speeches for sparking change. Yes, the trenchant phrase that made its way into the quotebooks sums up his view of what TV was. But to see his speech only as an attack misinterprets it and Minow.

A half-century later, the most remarkable thing about Minow’s (sorry) whale of a speech is his vision of what broadcasters could make television—and what we should remember in addition to the speech: his willingness to use the power of government to help. PunditWire Initials

Bob Lehrman Former White House Chief Speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, Lehrman has written thousands of speeches for Democratic politicians at the highest levels, as well as for nonprofit heads, corporate CEOs and entertainers.

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