U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Fifty Years Ago Today: Newton Minnow’s Vast Wasteland Speech

I’m cooking something else up that’s more involved than this post, but as it’s competing for my time with various end-of-the-semester duties, I wanted to at least note this important anniversary.

Fifty years ago today, on May 9, 1961, Newton Minnow, speaking to the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Washington, D.C., gave his first public address as President John F. Kennedy’s FCC Chairman. It was a doozy.  Famously declaring that television was a “vast wasteland,” Minnow attempted to lay out an alternative vision of television in the public interest.  This latter, positive goal was Minnow’s intended focus. But his jeremiad is what is most remembered.  The speech lives on as an example of the rhetoric of Kennedy’s New Frontier and a model for anti-television screeds for generations to come (though Minnow himself was as enamored of the possibilities of the medium as he was concerned about its actual performance).  Mike Dann, then a CBS executive, has called it “the Gettysburg Address for broadcasters.”

An audio recording of the speech, along with a complete transcription, can be found here.

An excellent report on the fiftieth anniversary of the speech aired last Friday on NPR’s On the Media.

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