Decades after first assessment, television still “vast wasteland”

Larry Rogers

Larry Rogers

If you type the phrase “vast wasteland” as a search engine prompt, then you will receive around 90 hits that all orbit around a speech given more than 40 years ago.

Its author, Newton Minnow, was John F. Kennedy’s appointment as chair of the Federal Communications Commission, the body that (along with the market) regulates the quality of television.

“I invite you to sit down in front of your television,” Minnow wrote, “and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.”

It’s a speech whose key phrase ranks with Eisenhower’s warning about the growth of the “military-industrial complex,” another warning that resonates louder all the time.

Every once in a while a brave adult soul takes Minnow up on his challenge and watches television for an extended period of time. Bill McKibben (“The Age of missing Information”) and Neil Postman (“Amusing Ourselves to Death”) wrote serious books about the experience.

They came to serious conclusions, all of them bad.

I’ve had a taste of the experience while recovering from surgery, though I was selective and watched mostly news channels, it not being baseball season yet.

My experience began two days after surgery. Still full of painkillers, I found myself apparently hallucinating while trapped in a vortex of strange and surreal images.

I was about to buzz the nurse for different meds when I realized that what I took to be an extended hallucination had been Michael Jackson’s arraignment on child molestation charges, complete with large numbers of trucked in adoring fans, Nation of Islam bodyguards, six dozen assorted cops, and a documentary film crew that was busy filming the network people who were filming them.

Who could know that the strangeness of the moment would be trumped (or Trumped, since has a show, too) by Jackson’s sister’s Super Bowl halftime “malfunction” or by the Martha Stewart trial? (You know the moral of that trial. We won’t charge Ken Lay, who stole billions, but we will catch someone who avoided losing $51,000.)

Throw in the Lacey Peterson murder trial and Kobe Bryant’s trial for sexual assault, and MSNBC and CNN have become adjuncts to Court TV.

And who would have predicted that the Super Bowl incident would become the most searched event on Google and Linex within the last five years-more than hanging chads, the cloning of embryos, 9/11, the Iraq War, and the Palestinian problem, to think of a few items that might have merited investigation by people who want to know.

Of course, P. T. Barnum, the Circus impresario, would have known what was going on.

“No one ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of Americans,” he once said, and he should have known what he was talking about given that he provided Americans with a running freak show that was unmatched until television.

Maybe Nero would have known what was going on, as well, what with his emphasis on “bread and circuses” as public distractors.

Or maybe William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, the yellow journalism guys, would have known.

The motion picture production code of the 1930s, a famous moralizing document, once required that nothing be shown in a movie that contributed to lowering the moral level of the audience. (That takes care of most drama, I imagine.)

Maybe the same expectation should be placed on the news.

Larry Rogers is an Associate Professor of Education and regular contributor to “Faculty Corner.” Comments on “Faculty Corner” submissions may be directed to the Collegian editorial staff at [email protected]