Harvard's Berkman Center hosts star-studded forum on media and the "vast wasteland"

May 9, 1961 marked the first public appearance of Newt Minow as FCC chairman, where he achieved immortality by raising the claim that television was a “vast wasteland.” The phrase entered American life so thoroughly that citing it has become almost reflexive in media commentary over the intervening fifty years. Last night, the Berkman Center held a gala event re-examining media, and the main guest of honor was…Newt Minow!

At eighty-five, Minow preserves the acumen, incisiveness, and zeal that he brought to the FCC. The large lecture room Austin Hall overflowed with attendees in awe at being in the presence of history, but Minow’s attendance (perhaps facilitated by the role of his daughter Martha as dean of the Harvard Law School) was matched by a boggling list of other stars–just view the roster again.

Conversation ranged from the role of the Internet in politics to the difference between news and entertainment, always with a tension over the question of how much power traditional media companies maintain. I distinguished three different models for presenting news and entertainment:

Advertising-supported

This is of course is the traditional twentieth-century model, promoted last night mostly by journalist Jonathan Alter, who lamented that newspapers and magazines can’t afford the costs of generating well-researched, carefully vetted news. Asked who could fund something in new media comparable to the recent report in the New York Times about a shortage of life-saving chemotherapy drugs, he suggested (probably half-jokingly) that a site might get advertising from drug companies. The other commentators at last night’s event expressed little if any confidence that we could return to this model.

Public funding

Minow himself expressed enthusiasm for the BBC model (imitated in other countries such as Japan), where a tax supports a independent, public media outlet. This may or may not be better than the mixed model followed by public broadcasting in the US, always begging for funds. But in any case, an unbreachable media giant could well become a bureaucratic establishment all its own. In fact, journalist Ellen Goodman accused PBS and NPR of being too hide-bound to support innovation. I bristled a bit at this–don’t Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street count? After fifty years, maybe not much. But the public stations are also looking at innovative Web products and are sharing a lot online.

Mass contributions

Yochai Benkler and Ethan Zuckerman led the charge for Internet media and mass cultural participation. Zuckerman tempered his enthusiasm for the “universal language” of video, such as one finds on his Global Voices site, by saying “Video needs help.” He identified three types of intervention needed to help us understand posted videos: translation, curation, and contextualization.

Along the lines of mass participation, Virginia Heffernan of the New York Times issued the punchiest and most concrete advice of the evening: to sign up as an editor on Wikipedia. “If you haven’t done it yet,” she urged the audience, “go home this evening and create an account for yourself.” The audience greeted this exhortation with much acclaim. Hefferman directed her request particularly at renowned historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who was sitting right in front of her. And Goodwin expressed some surprise at the idea that she too could edit Wikipedia. But she admitted to being intrigued at the idea and willing to consider doing it. (Hefferman should perhaps also have pointed Goodwin in particular to Wikipedia’s rule that sources must be cited appropriately to avoid the appearance of plagiarism.)

The triumph of citizen journalism and crowdsourcing was not universally accepted last night, of course. The “vast wasteland” of the 1960s was contrasted with the “Tower of Babel” (a phrase introduced by Alter into the discussion) of modern media and Internet postings. Uncertainty over the future course of media led to the next topics in last night’s rich panoply.

The power of the politicians and the media

Minow’s historic speech (available in audio) stands out as a reflection of the power relationships that existed in 1960s media, rather different from today. He stood up to broadcasters by saying “The people own the air” and promising to fight the “squandering of our public airwaves” as a “precious national resource.” He warned broadcasters not just to “cater to the nation’s whims” but to “serve the nation’s needs,” reminded local stations to “meet their responsibilities to serve their communities,” promised to support UHF in order to increase the number of television channels, and capped his speech with the ringing words, “Television is filled with creative, imaginative people. You must strive to set them free.”

The Kennedy administration and Minow’s FCC did take the lead in promoting the “public interest” (a phrase that Ann Marie Lipinski and Ellen Goodman said is hard even to define nowadays in a way everyone could accept). For instance, national public broadcasting was started on their watch. But last night’s commentators said that any speech like Minow’s would fall flat now, because modern media companies are fixed on the bottom line. Susan Crawford pointed out that the vast majority of Americans get their TV and their internet from a single incumbent cable operator in their area.

At the end, Terry Fisher suggested that the FCC was no longer the force to contend with in modern media, and that its power had been taken over by Internet filters of which Google is one early example.

Minow’s coverage of politics and media (aside from a bromide about the difference between American openness and Soviet media control) consisted of a complaint, at the end of his opening presentation yesterday evening, that American politicians have to pay for air time, whereas many countries require the media to give it to them free. Billions of dollars go to American media companies for campaign advertising, while politicians spend most of their time groveling for dollars to pay for it.

While not following Minow’s lead directly, other commentators weighed the interesting questions of whether professional media can meet the viewers’ needs and whether politicians’ bully pulpit has the impact it used to have.

Heffernan criticized her own newspaper, saying that the New York Times got key facts wrong about Saddam Hussein’s execution. They depended on reports of eyewitnesses after the fact, whereas a fringe video site managed to obtain and release a film taken at the event itself. This may suggest some of the power of amateur journalists on the ground, but Heffernan didn’t raise the more important question of whether the video can inform our understanding of anything we really need to discuss. The precise words uttered by Hussein before the execution are of trivial importance compared to difficult issues such as whether the court that condemned him to death had legal legitimacy.

Goodwin focused on the issue of the bully pulpit. She says that Franklin Roosevelt was shut off from the public by the conservative media of his time, rather as Obama has trouble getting a message out now (although for different reasons). Roosevelt reacted with his fireside chats over the relatively new medium of radio, and was heard by tens of millions. Goodwin claimed that the bully pulpit has lost its force, and could not pinpoint how or when it happened. But I can think of a couple recent instances that show its continuing power.

The first was Obama’s illustrious speech on race during his candidacy, as public anger over provocative remarks by his former pastor Jeremiah Wright threatened to derail Obama’s progress. He rose to the occasion, delivering on March 18, 2008 the most candid and thoughtful speech about race given by any major politician over the past forty years. His campaign was back on track, and his critics had to drop the Wright controversy in frustration.

Another example took place a decade earlier and involved another leading African-American politician, Colin Powell. Powell had achieved enormous popularity for his aplomb and integrity during the First Gulf War. As secretary of state, he delivered a speech before the United Nations Security Council on February 5, 2003, claiming to present evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. This speech almost single-handedly persuaded the UN to give crucial international backing to the Bush administration’s anti-Iraq campaign, and led many Americans to support the following war. Nobody would have thought much of that speech had it been delivered by Bush, Cheney, or Rumsfeld. They reacted positively because they trusted Powell. And it was his reputation that took a fatal hit when the invasion failed to turn up the promised weapons.

What makes a Golden Age?

While bewailing the “wasteland,” none of the speakers last night reminisced about the Golden Age that has often been cited for the earlier decade in television. Heffernan said that quality of today’s entertainment (if not news) is better than ever. I’m sure that our current writers and actors have a sophistication and professionalism that goes far beyond those of 1950s icons such as May and Nichols. But I maintain that none are better than May and Nichols. Their work hasn’t been aired for decades, but YouTube makes it easy for you to verify my claim.

Not everything in the 50s was high-quality, of course. One of May and Nichols’s best skits is their 1959 Emmy presentation, where they hand out an award for “producing garbage” and “sticking to my one ideal: money.”

But the decade did see a dramatic influx of talented radio presenters who were inspired and excited by the possibilities of the new visual dimension television gave them. There remains something special about this period, like any new medium. Nobody last night considered the possibility that television experienced a sizeable gap in time before the bean-counters figured out how to gain a chokehold over it, and that perhaps the Internet will go through a similar degeneration.

Wrap-up

It was a bit disappointing that the illustrious guests failed to stay for the reception. So I didn’t get to tweak Alter over my annoyance that, in the 480 pages of The Promise, his book about Obama’s first year in the presidency, he said nothing about the open government initiative. Right now the efforts of Aneesh Chopra, Beth Godwin, Vivek Kundra, and Beth Noveck are suffering from budget cuts, but in thirty years they could well be the most heralded aspects of Obama’s time in office. Media may be democratizing, but a wall still stands between the most successful content providers and their audience.

But an event like this at Harvard will draw lots of accomplished audience members too. I met an employee of the Nieman Foundation, a professor of media, and others. When the annals of modern media are opened sometime in the future, last night’s guest speakers will probably have place in it, but we won’t be able to predict who else will as well.

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    I think its time for comment moderation

    • Rachel James

      Thanks for the heads up. Looks like the comment spammers woke up earlier than us this morning, but I’ve deleted the spam now.

      Rachel