61 Years After the Legendary Vast Wasteland Speech

Posted on May 9, 2022 at 8:09 am

Copyright 2016 TWH
Sixty-one years ago today, on May 9, 1961, my dad, the 35-year-old Chairman of the FCC, Newton Minow, made three significant appearances. In Washington, he gave his famous “vast wasteland” speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, telling them that while “when television is good, nothing is better,” he expected them to do more to uphold their statutory obligation to serve “the public interest, convenience, and necessity.” Then he went back to the FCC office, where he met with Elizabeth Campbell to sign the original license for WETA, the first educational television station in the nation’s capital, now the producer of the Ken Burns documentaries and the nightly Newshour. And then he flew to Chicago to attend the father-daughter dinner for my Brownie troop.

I often thought about how those three events defined his character: inspiring those around him to do better, supporting the visions of people making enriching cultural content and reliable news sources widely available, and always putting his family first. Over the next decades this was reflected in his efforts as a founder and board chair of PBS, a director of CBS, helping to create the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), where he served as vice chair until this year, working to require the V-chip and closed captioning, helping to get the start-up funding for “Sesame Street,” and arguing for the rescission of the radio license of a station that broadcast virulently racist and anti-Semitic programming. His countless awards include more than a dozen honorary doctorates, a Peabody, and the highest honor for American civilians, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by President Barack Obama (who met Michelle when they were both working in my father’s law office). Our family’s favorite “honor” might be the sinking ship on “Gilligan’s Island,” named as an insult to my father for his criticism of television by producer Sherwood Schwartz. They later had a very cordial correspondence.

He appeared on Chicago’s PBS station last month to talk about the RNC’s announcement that they would not participate in the Presidential Debates.

Today Cornell law professor Robert Hockett recognizes the anniversary of the speech with a proposal my sister endorsed in her book, Saving the News (with an introduction by my father titled “From Guttenberg to Zuckerberg”), a “public option” for social media.

Mike Leonard’s documentary about my dad has some wonderful stories.

I talked to my dad about some of his formative experiences, including the words from Bobby Kennedy that inspired him to focus on telecommunications, what he will advise the new FCC Chair, and why he told President Kennedy the first telecommunications satellite was more important than putting a man on the moon.

He is the world’s best dad and grandpa. We are so lucky.

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Television Understanding Media and Pop Culture

New Book About Hallmark Christmas Movies!

Posted on November 1, 2021 at 8:00 am

Copyright Running Press 2021
If Halloween is over, it’s time for Hallmark Christmas movies! And a new book gives you something to look at while the many, many commercials are interrupting them. It is a delightful guide to the best produced so far, from how the Deck the Hallmark podcast hosts and best friends Brandon Gray, Daniel “Panda” Pandolph, and Dan Thompson. They unabashedly love these movies while fully aware of their formulas and other issues. Also, they are very funny.

In I’ll be Home for Christmas Movies, they share reviews that make you feel like you’re watching these holiday favorites with your best buds, discussing warm Christmas feelings and absolutely bonkers plot twists with equal enthusiasm. And thanks to original interviews with the movies’ stars and creators, fans will find out insider information on the making of the movies and learn answers to pressing questions: Why do the lead characters keep coming down with amnesia? Why do so many female stock brokers and lawyers find themselves forced to plan parties? And do all of the stories take place within something called the “Kennyverse”?

To complete the perfect Christmas package, the book is also chock-full of ideas for hosting your own holiday movie-watching party, complete with delicious recipes and it features dozens of full-color photos.

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Newton Minow’s “Vast Wasteland” Speech: 60 Years Ago Today

Posted on May 9, 2021 at 10:17 am

On May 9, 1961, my father, Newton Minow, delivered a speech that continues to inspire the conversation about media and has even been an answer on Jeopardy!

I interviewed him about the speech for Emmy Magazine. LA Times columnist Michael Hiltzik interviewed him about media and the news.

He appeared on his favorite news program, the PBS Newshour, to talk to Judy Woodruff about television then and now.

NPR celebrates its 50th anniversary this week, and its official history gives my dad some of the credit. He also helped launch the first telecommunications satellite, helped get the original funding for “Sesame Street” and helped create the Presidential Debates, involved in every one going back to the original, Kennedy-Nixon, and designed the current bi-partisan commission, where he still serves as Vice Chair.

Today Dad was the Power Player of the Week on FOX with Chris Wallace.

In 1961, Dad was President Kennedy’s new Chairman of the FCC, just 35 years old, and in his first major address he told the National Association of Broadcasters that while there was much to admire on television, too much of it was a “vast wasteland.”

He told the audience about the day before the speech, when President Kennedy brought Commander Alan Shepherd, who had just become the first American in space, and his wife, to the National Association of Broadcasters event Dad would be speaking to the following day. President Kennedy invited Dad to come upstairs while he changed his shirt, to give him some ideas about what to tell the broadcasters. Dad suggested that he talk about the difference between the way Americans and the Soviet Union conducted their space program. In the US, we had all the television cameras there to show the American people, good or bad, what was happening.

At the time Dad called on the broadcasters to do better, there were just three national television networks. There was no PBS, just a National Educational Television which was not even available in most of the country, including Washington DC itself. My father told the broadcasters that as long as the airwaves were a scarce resource, they would have to do better to live up to their statutory obligation to serve the public interest, convenience, and necessity, especially with regard to coverage of news and programming for children.

Copyright Newsweek 1961

Dad worked over the next half-century to make more choices available, including cable and satellite as well as the creation of a robust public television station. He served as chairman of PBS and of the Chicago affiliate WTTW, served on the board of CBS, pushed for closed captioning to make television programming available to hearing-impaired viewers and those learning to read or speak English, and argued one of the only cases in history to have a broadcast license rescinded - a station that spewed hatred across the airwaves. In protest of his critique of television, the sinking ship on “Gilligan’s Island” was named after him, the S.S. Minnow! He is so proud he has a lifesaver from the SS Minnow on his office wall, a gift from his law partners for his 90th birthday. He was presented with the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, by President Barack Obama, in 2016.

PBS has a great documentary about him which is free to watch online. He is also the world’s best dad and we are all so proud of him.

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Understanding Media and Pop Culture

Happy Mother’s Day! And Some Great Movie Mothers

Posted on May 9, 2021 at 7:00 am

The movies have given us warm, loving, mothers, evil, abusive mothers, even alien mothers. Some of my favorites are featured in my book, 50 Must-See Movies: Mothers, including these.

Claudia Before they went on to co-star in the luminous romance, “The Enchanted Cottage,” Dorothy McGuire and Robert Young played a young married couple in this sweet neglected gem based on the books by Rose Franken.  Claudia and David love each other very much and he finds her innocence very appealing.  But her immaturity leads to many problems.  A neighbor thinks Claudia is flirting with him and without consulting David she impulsively decides to sell their farm.  And she is very dependent on the loving mother she adores but takes for granted.  Claudia’s is about to face two of life’s most demanding challenges – her mother is dying and Claudia and David are going to become parents themselves.  So Claudia’s mother has to find a way to help Claudia grow up.  Watch for: a rare film appearance by the exquisite Broadway star Ina Claire as Claudia’s mother

Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner There are two great mothers in this talky, dated, but still endearing “issue movie” about inter-racial marriage from 1967.  Katharine Hepburn’s real-life niece Katharine Houghton plays her daughter and what Houghton lacks in screen presence and acting experience is less important than the genuine connection and palpable affection between the two of them.  The question may seem quaint now, but as filming was underway, inter-racial marriage was still illegal in 17 states.  The Supreme Court ruled those laws unconstitutional that same year.  Hepburn is electrifying in what she knew would be her final film with her most frequent co-star and real-life great love, Spencer Tracy.  And the distinguished actress Beah Richards is brilliant as the mother of a son who says his father thinks of himself as a “colored man,” while he just thinks of himself as a man.  Watch for: Hepburn’s expression as her daughter describes falling in love

Claudine Diahann Carroll was nominated for an Oscar for her performance as a single mother in this ground-breaking 1974 film, one of the first to portray a domestic employee as a real person with her own home and family, and one of the first to provide an honest look at the perverse incentives of the “Great Society” welfare programs.  Claudine is the mother of six who has to keep her work as a housekeeper and her relationship with a genial garbage worker (James Earl Jones) a secret from the social worker because they put at risk the payments she needs for her children.  Watch for: the very romantic bathtub scene

Dear Frankie Emily Mortimer plays Lizzie, the divorced mother of a young deaf son in this heartwarming story set in Scotland.  She is devoted and very protective.  She does not want him to know the truth about his abusive father (the source of his deafness), so she tells him that his father is a merchant seaman.  The letters he receives from all the ports of call full of details about all the places he has been are really written by Lizzie. When the ship comes to their town, she has to find someone to pretend to be his father.  Watch for: Lizzie’s explanation of the reason she writes to Frankie —  “because it’s the only way I can hear his voice”

Imitation of Life This melodrama about two single mothers, one white and one black, who join forces has been filmed twice and both are worth seeing.  The best remembered is the glossy, glamorous 1959 version with Lana Turner and Juanita Moore.  Lora (Turner) and Annie (Moore) are brought together by their daughters, who meet at Coney Island.  Lora, a struggling actress, needs someone to help look after her daughter and Annie needs a job and a place to live.  Annie moves in to be the housekeeper/nanny.  She and Lora have a strong, supportive friendship, though Lora and both girls take Annie for granted.  As the girls grow up, Lora’s daughter is resentful of the time her mother spends on her career and Annie’s daughter resents the racism she confronts even though her skin is so light she can pass for white.  Watch for: the most elaborate funeral scene ever put on film, with a sobbing apology from Annie’s daughter (Susan Kohner)

Please Don’t Eat the Daisies Doris Day stars in this film loosely based on Jean Kerr’s hilarious essays about life as Kate, the wife of a theater critic (David Niven) and mother of four rambunctious boys.  While most of the film’s focus is on the marital strains caused by her husband’s new job and the family’s new home, the scenes of Kate’s interactions with her children are among the highlights.  It is clear that while she tries to be understated about her affection and sometimes frustration, she adores them.  Watch for: Kate’s affectionate interactions with her own mother, played by Spring Byington

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Interview with My Dad, Newton Minow, about the FCC, the SS Minnow, Saying No to JFK, and Media Today

Posted on April 22, 2021 at 11:22 am

One of the great pleasures and honors of my life was the chance to interview my wonderful dad for Emmy Magazine in honor of the upcoming 60th anniversary of his famous speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, calling television “a vast wasteland.”

An excerpt:

Sixty years ago, on May 9, 1961, the 35-year-old Chairman of the FCC, Newton Minow, made three significant appearances. In Washington, he gave his famous “vast wasteland” speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, telling them that while “when television is good, nothing is better,” he expected them to do more to uphold their statutory obligation to serve “the public interest, convenience, and necessity.” Then he went back to the FCC office, where he met with Elizabeth Campbell to sign the original license for WETA, the first educational television station in the nation’s capital, now the producer of the Ken Burns documentaries and the nightly Newshour. And then he flew to Chicago to attend the father-daughter dinner for my Brownie troop.

Copyright Emmy Magazine 2021

I often thought about how those three events defined his character: inspiring those around him to do better, supporting the visions of people making enriching cultural content and reliable news sources widely available, and always putting his family first.  Over the next decades this was reflected in his efforts as a founder and board chair of PBS, a director of CBS, helped create the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), where he served as vice chair until this year, worked to require the V-chip and closed captioning, helped get the start-up funding for “Sesame Street,” and argued for the rescission of the radio license of a station that broadcast virulently racist and anti-Semitic programming.  And he and my mom will celebrate their 72nd wedding anniversary this spring.

 

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