Monday, September 25, 2006


The ability of the Internet to forge connections and to disseminate information sometimes astonishes even Elisson.

After the Swift Boat Veterans business back in 2004 and the Dan Rather imbroglio, most of us are at least moderately aware of the Bloggy-Sphere’s unparalleled power to correct factual errors. Of course, Blognis can also offer up the same stew of propaganda, political spin, and bullshit that the MSM doles out, but it’s done at a grassroots level - and that’s not my focus in this post.

This is a story of how Elisson got caught in an inadvertent Error of Fact, and how the error was quickly winkled out.

In my recent post about International Talk Like a Pirate Day, I made – purely for the sake of a Piratical Pun – an offhand reference to “the late FCC Chairman Newton Minow,” who chaired the FCC during the Kennedy administration. Minow had famously described the television industry at the beginning of the 1960’s as “a vast wasteland,” and of course that’s only one step away from “avast wasteland” – something a pirate might want to avoid.

The thing is, Mr. Minow is still walking the planet, and as commenter David pointed out, Minow “is very much with us, and as far as I know he has never been late for an appointment in his life.”

My bad. I had not done my homework, and instead assumed that Newt was watching teevee with the Choir Eternal. But, as Mark Twain once said, “Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” Minow, in fact, is not Late, but is On Time. And as someone who delivered a speech - “Television and the Public Interest” - that is considered by some to be one of the 100 best American speeches of the 20th century, he is worthy of a closer look.

Minow, a close personal friend of Robert F. Kennedy, was assistant counsel to Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson prior to being tapped for the head post at the FCC in 1961. After leaving the FCC, he did not exactly let grass grow under his feet. According to Wikipedia,
He has also been chairman of the Public Broadcasting Service and its predecessor, National Educational Television. He is a recent past-president of the Carnegie Foundation, an influential PBS sponsor, along with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He has been chairman of the RAND corporation and a trustee of the Mayo Clinic. He is a life trustee of Northwestern University and the University of Notre Dame. He co-chaired the 1976 and 1980 presidential debates and is a director of the Commission on Presidential Debates. He has served on numerous presidential commissions and is chairman of a special advisory committee to the Secretary of Defense on protecting civil liberties in the fight against terrorism.
So, of course Mr. Smart-Brains here figured he must also be defunct.

Minow’s landmark speech was made in May of 1961, at a time when “pay TV” was a concept taking its gingerly first steps; when there were only three national networks; when UHF channels were a new technology with exciting potential; when there was no Internet. He acknowledged the excellence of the best TV had to offer, while decrying the rest:
I have seen a great many television programs that seemed to me eminently worthwhile and I am not talking about the much bemoaned good old days of “Playhouse 90” and “Studio One.

“I am talking about this past season... When television is good, nothing - not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers - nothing is better.

“But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there for a day - without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit and loss sheet or rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

“You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And, endlessly, commercials - many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you will see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.”
What has changed in the past 45 years?

Besides the three major networks, we now have Fox, UPN, and WB. Between broadcast television, satellite, and cable, we now have hundreds of channels to choose from, including premium movie channels, HBO, Showtime, pay-per-view, and a bucketful of superstations. Consistent with the general coarsening of our popular culture, phrases cross the lips of sitcom characters that would have burst bloodvessels back in 1961.

There is excellence, and there is crap...and that crap is oh, so crappy.

There is Reality Television. The Biggest Loser. The Apprentice. Big Brother. Fuck a Dwarf for Jesus. Bowling for Handjobs. The Home Shopping Network. Kiddie shows that are nothing but half-hour advertisements.

On the other hand, there are shows like “The Sopranos,” “Law and Order,” “Scrubs,” and the late “Seinfeld.” In the forty-five years since Minow’s speech, we’ve seen television both as an agent of social change and as a mirror that allows us to see how much we have changed. Compare “I Married Joan” and “Amos ’n’ Andy” to “All In The Family”...or “The Dick Van Dyke Show” to “Mary Tyler Moore.”

Nova. National Geographic. Sesame Street.

Today, it’s a vaster wasteland – but among the swamps and desert wilderness, there are a few glimmering outposts of quality and hope.

Newton Minow, the man of vision, is still around. He’s not thrilled with the state of the television industry, I’m sure – especially in the area of children’s programming – but he is still, in the words of Nell, another commenter, “...captain of the good ship Minow (and I don’t mean the one from the three-hour tour).” I won’t make the mistake of assuming his premature demise again.

Speaking of the “good ship Minow,” here’s an interesting bit of trivia: the S.S. Minnow, of “Gilligan’s Island” fame, was named after Newton Minow his ownself. Sherwood Schwartz, the show’s producer, christened the unfortunate vessel the Minnow in an attempt to stick it to the FCC Chairman.

And that other commenter Nell? None other than Newton Minow’s daughter, whom you may also know as the Movie Mom. You meet the damndest people on the Inter-Bloggy-Net!

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