- Some highlights from this interview
- What makes television unique among the media
- Minow's "massive mistake" as chair of the FCC
- The "vast wasteland" and the "public interest"
- The press's bias towards controversy
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Minow, then a young lawyer with limited communications law experience, to chair the Federal Communications Commission. One of Minow's early speeches as FCC chairman stirred up enormous controversy when he labeled the content of television a "vast wasteland." During his two-and-a-half-year term, he advocated reforming broadcasting to better serve the public interest and laid the groundwork for the Public Broadcasting Service. At the end of his term, he returned to private practice law. He has served as chairman of PBS, the Carnegie Foundation and the RAND Corporation and is vice chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Mar. 31, 2006.
... People who watch television today I don't think really understand that first, the public owns the airwaves and what that means, and that there's a public-interest requirement, if you will, or standard, in the law.
Very few people understand it, including a lot of people who are broadcasters don't understand it. A lot of people in Congress don't understand it. The law is very clear. The law was passed in the midst of the Depression, and broadcasting was quite new. And the standard -- which the Congress wrote into the law, which broadcasters must fulfill -- is, "The public interest, convenience and necessity."
"Public interest, convenience and necessity": Those are words which are taken from the regulation of utilities, like telephone companies or electric companies. And yet the next section of the law contradicts that by saying that a broadcaster is not -- N-O-T -- not a public utility. So we started off in two directions simultaneously in the regulation of broadcasting.
But the airwaves belong to the public. What does that mean?
There's [a] little history here. When broadcasting began, there was not regulation, and the result was that people would broadcast on the same channel, so the listener got only static. There was no way that you could give an exclusive use to one channel. So the broadcasters went to the government and pleaded with the government to intervene -- to separate who got this channel, who got that channel. That's how broadcasting regulation began. It was really the legacy of Herbert Hoover, who was the secretary of commerce before he became president.
I went back and looked at the Hoover investigation back in 1922, and Hoover himself calls it "a great national asset of primary public interest to say who is to do broadcasting under what circumstances and with what type of material."
Exactly. He also said, "We must never allow this great medium to become obsessed with advertising chatter." Those were his words. ... Hoover's attitude toward broadcasting would be today regarded as quaint. But then, in my view, he was absolutely right.
And the "public interest, convenience and necessity," ... just so we understand, that means that broadcasting isn't like newspapers, isn't like any other kind of media. It's something where the means of distribution are actually owned, if you will, and can be regulated by [the] public.
It's more than that. A broadcaster gets the exclusive use of a channel without any payment to the government or to the public. In exchange, there's a bargain struck there: that we will give you, free, this exclusive use of a channel in exchange for your obligation to serve the public interest. That's unlike, for example, cellular phones. There the airwaves are leased to an operator [for] ... billions and billions of dollars. So therefore, it is the gift that the public makes to a broadcaster in exchange for an obligation to serve the public interest. ...
Do you know how much it costs to apply for a license?
About $10. Well, it's gone up now.
... It's $250, I believe, now to apply for a new license, and $100 to renew every eight years with a postcard. ... It may be the most lucrative license you could get from the government, dollar for dollar.
It is, it is. And of course now it's gotten complicated, because we have cable. The principal idea I had -- when I was chairman of the FCC, and I thought a great deal about it -- but the principal idea I had was that the best thing we could do in a free society, or the government could do, would be to expand the range of choice.
“I would say [television is] a vaster wasteland because there's so many more choices.”
So we opened up UHF television; we opened up what we call public television, then called educational television; we opened up cable; we opened up satellite; the theory being the more choice the public had, the more freedom there would be in broadcasting. More people would have an opportunity to be broadcasters. That was the overriding thought. …
At the time, when I was there, there were two and a half networks. There was no educational television, or public television, on a national basis. The UHF was struggling very feebly. It was a very different world.
... You know, not too long after you left, the Supreme Court issued a decision, and it said, "It's the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of broadcasters, which is paramount."
... [Many broadcasters] don't understand that their obligation was endorsed by the United States Supreme Court, not only once but many times; that that's the law. ... It's the audience that has the choice of watching that channel or watching another channel or turning a channel off. But the broadcaster is, by law, a ... trustee for the benefit of the public.
... There's only one group of people who have a lawful statutory right to be on the air. That's a political candidate. ... That's the only one who has that right. ... The Congress knew how to take care of themselves.
But the idea of scarcity [that applied before cable and satellite television] -- is it still relevant today, given all the diversity?
Yes, it is. Yes, it is. I testified in Congress about that. ... They said: "Why do you say there is scarcity? There are more radio stations than there are newspapers, so how can you say there's scarcity?"
I said, "When a newspaper dies, as happens terribly and frequently in our country, where we have most cities with only one newspaper, there's nobody else who comes in to offer the public another newspaper. But when a broadcast channel is vacant, there are swarms of applicants who come in and say: 'Give it to me. Don't give it to somebody else; give it to me.' So there is scarcity on that sense." …
From the viewer's perspective, there's no longer scarcity. From the person who is the broadcaster, or the cable operator, there is scarcity. ... I've thought a great deal about whether the philosophy that I pushed in the government was correct, ... and in many ways, I'd say I was wrong, because standards have deteriorated. Standards -- the amount of commercials, the amount of the violence, the sex. ... And yet, I say to myself, on the other hand, you've given the viewer the option of choosing what he or she wants to see.
So there's a trade-off.
There's a trade-off. And I think, in a free country, in a free society, the trade-off we made was correct. If you're in a dictatorship, the first thing the dictator does is shut down all alternative forms of mass communication. ...
One critic says that back when you were FCC commissioner, there were two and a half networks, but there were also thousands of newspapers in the United States. Now, today, you may have thousands of outlets -- Internet, cable and so on -- but it's a handful of companies now that control most of those outlets.
That's a valid criticism. ... There has ... sadly been too much concentration, and the government has permitted that to happen. ... The ... economics pushed toward concentration, but the opportunity for more people to be in the business gets eliminated.
Also, the number of opinions become dominated by, let's say, one source. There was a classic case in a small community in one of the Western states where one company owned all the outlets. They didn't even have people on duty at night. It was all mechanical. And there was some form of a national disaster -- an earthquake or a storm -- and nobody could get in any news because this one company had turned off all the lights. That's wrong. ...
So when you hear one of your successors, as head of the FCC, say, "What should govern the public interest is the public's interest" --
I've heard that. ... And I suppose if you put X-rated movies on television, that would probably get the highest rating of all time, but that doesn't mean it should be done.
We live in a capitalist society. We live in a society that apparently believes that free markets are the answer. If that's what the market will bear, why not do it?
Well, because broadcasting is different than the market. That's the fundamental point. ... If it were truly a free market, you wouldn't need a license from the government, right? Anybody could go into the business. The technology is what forbids it being a free market.
OK, so we need some traffic rules. You don't want people broadcasting on top of each other. But we can now have thousands, tens of thousands, of ways to transmit information -- through the air, or through cables.
It may turn out, in the long run, that the technology has greatly outstripped the law. Technology moves very fast; the law moves very slowly. When communications began in this country, we decided, as a nation, that telephone communication would go by wire; that radio, and later television communication, go over the air. Today more people are using the phone over the air, with a cell phone, and more people are getting their television by wire, through cable. ... It's a very provocative thought. Why did we set up the system the way we have it? It was because that was the technology at the time. Why do we still have that system today? Probably it is not a sensible system, it may turn out in the end. ...
... [Former FCC chair] Mark Fowler said to us: "I want the electronic media to follow the print model. Should be every bit as free as the ink medium. No distinctions should be made."
He also said, "A television set is nothing but a toaster with pictures." Well, it's much more than that. It's what holds this country together as a means of mass communication. We watch the president[ial] debates. We watch the World Series. We watch the president's inaugural address. We watch a great moment in history because of television. ...
I've had a very blessed career, and I've had a front-row seat at every part of this business. I've been on the board of [two] newspapers. ... I've been on the board of a UHF broadcaster. I've been on the board of the public broadcasters and was chairman of PBS. I've been on the board of CBS, a big national network. I've been in the government. I've been in the classroom teaching. So I have the benefit of seeing a wide perspective of all this, and clearly we have the best system of mass communication in the world in our country. And it's been a balance: a balance of enterprise, the market and government regulation.
But I think I made one huge, massive mistake when I was in the government. I should have started with one principle, which was to reduce the amount of commercials. I would have had the public and the Congress together on my side. I tried to do it later, but I should have started with that, because at that time, the broadcasters had a code which said six minutes of commercials an hour ... was the max. I said later to the broadcasters, "Either you'll enforce your code, which I hope you will do, or you'll have to have the government do it for you." But we should have started with that, because that's what's happened in most other countries. And then the public would have been educated to the fact that the public own the airwaves.
... What you're saying is that government intervention is necessary in broadcast?
Absolutely. When I was on the board of CBS, [CBS founder] Bill Paley used to say to me: "We don't need the Fairness Doctrine. Get rid of the Fairness Doctrine." And I said: "Bill, not every broadcaster is like you. If they were all like you, we wouldn't need the Fairness Doctrine. But they're not all like you." There are people out there who don't care about being fair, and for that reason you need [regulation], just like you need a policeman.
... What was going through your mind in 1961, when [you made] your speech about the "vast wasteland?"
I wanted to give a message to the broadcasters. You've got to remember the context. The FCC has been disgraced in the late '50s. Disgraced. There was corruption. President Eisenhower had to fire the chairman of the FCC. There was payola. There were the quiz show scandals. It was regarded as a cesspool. I wanted to give a message to the broadcasters that things were going to change, that the FCC was going to follow the law, and the FCC was going to be aggressive. I'd never paid any attention to two words in that speech which became well known -- "vast wasteland." I cared about two other words -- "public interest" -- that got lost in the shuffle.
... Let me read that paragraph to you. "I invite you to sit down in front of your television set" -- you're telling the network executives and broadcasters -- "when your station goes on the air, and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit or loss sheet or rating book to distract you. And keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland." When you watch television today, if you actually sit there all the way through, has it changed?
Totally changed. I'm an old-movie junkie; I can watch old movies whenever I want. I'm a sports junkie; I can watch more sports than ever before. I'm a news junkie above all; I can find news all the time. I don't think it's of the same quality, but I can find it. Financial information I can find; entertainment I can find. ... So I have a much wider range of choice.
So things have gotten better?
In that sense they have. Where they've gotten worse -- much worse -- is where they treat children, which I regard as the biggest crime. Children are lavished with sex, violence, murder. And there have been academic studies by the pediatrics that show by the time a child reaches 12 years old, he's witnessed, I think, 2,342 murders on television. This is the disgrace.
... The Fairness Doctrine [at that time] meant you couldn't say something about someone without allowing them to reply?
That was part of it. But it also dealt with issues. ... Let's take the issue that's dominant in politics today: immigration. If you had somebody on the air who advocated a particular point of view about immigration, you had to have somebody else who differed. ... That was basically the Fairness Doctrine.
... And Mark Fowler argued that the Fairness Doctrine was unconstitutional because it required the government to get involved in deciding whether a broadcaster was being fair. He said it violated the First Amendment and that Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of the press.
Well, I don't know whether he ever read the Red Lion [Broadcasting Co. v. FCC] decision of the Supreme Court, because it says exactly the opposite. ... It says it's the viewers, not the broadcaster, who has the rights here, and the viewers have a right to hear all sides of a controversial question.
And the government can intervene to make sure that happens?
That's correct. I don't like that particularly. I don't like what's going on now with the FCC with the indecency provisions, because I'm a great fundamental believer in the First Amendment. I wish the broadcasters themselves would live up to their own code and their own standards. But in the last analysis, just like having a cop on the beat, if somebody goes overboard you'd have to have somebody -- in this case it's the government -- to step in.
Well, let me quote Mr. Fowler again. He says, "I defy anyone to tell me any significant subject matter that is not being discussed somewhere in the electronic media today." This is again talking about why the Fairness Doctrine is unnecessary, especially with the Internet and blogosphere. Everything is being discussed, so we don't need government involvement. Do you agree?
I think the need for government involvement has decreased with the explosion of new media. I agree with that, but I don't think it's totally gone, because most people are getting most of their information on broadcast television.
So it's still the dominant form of communication?
Yes, it is, and I think it will continue to be for quite a while. ... I've been very involved with public television -- I've been the chairman of our station here, chairman of PBS. And people very often say to me: "Now that there's so many channels, so much choice, why do we need public television? ... What's the justification?" And I say: "Why do we have public libraries? Why do we have public parks? Why do we have public universities? Why do we have public hospitals? Why do we do that? We do that because there's a market failure. The market does not serve everybody fairly, so we therefore decide that we will have a noncommercial alternative for people." I believe that's a very important part of this mix, that people need a range of choice.
... When people say that the broadcast media has been deregulated, is that accurate? ... [Has] this deregulation produced benefits?
I don't think it's produced benefits except for the broadcaster. It has not produced benefits for the viewer. The broadcast license used to be a three-year term; now it's a seven-year term. You used to have to show that you've canvassed the community and given the community a chance to tell you what the community wants to hear; now that's pretty much gone. ... So I think the deregulation has not helped the viewer.
... And just so I'm clear, is television still a vast wasteland?
... I would say it's a vaster wasteland because there's so many more choices. And the burden, ... with the expanded range of choice, it's much more on the viewer. Where the two and a half network heads, when I was in government, really decided what most people would see, ... today the viewer has more options.
Pat Buchanan called [the media] "an unelected elite," ... these network heads, these Eastern establishment people -- I think he would include you in the group -- these liberals [who] kept the American public from really learning what their elected leaders had to say.
... Broadcasting is more then a news medium. It's also the auditorium for the nation. ... If a newspaper doesn't want to cover the president's speech, that's their right. But broadcasting is more than that. It's simultaneously a news medium, [and] it's also the nation's auditorium. If the president wants to speak, broadcasters have no business saying no; I don't care who the president is.
[Buchanan's] beef was that the president would get on television, he might get the air time, but then immediately there was analysis or commentary right afterward.
Well, I think there's some truth to that. I see that in terms of the presidential debates. You watch the debates, and then there are literally a thousand reporters outside saying, "Well, this guy won," or, "That guy lost," before the public has a chance to absorb it. So I do think we overdo the spin.
... So you agree with Buchanan that the media's basically biased, the liberal bias in particular?
... I don't think so. I think that the media's biased in favor of controversy. The media loves controversy, loves argument, loves contentiousness. Things are going well -- that's not news. They used to say in journalism school, if a dog bites a man that's not news, but if a man bites a dog that's big news. Well, I think that's what's happened. ... I don't think it has to do with liberal or conservative; it has to do with controversy, controversy, controversy.
Let me take you back to the Fairness Doctrine. It was repealed in the 1980s.
By the FCC under pressure from Congress.
No, it was a bad idea. The Fairness Doctrine was a safety valve so that differing opinions would be heard. It also protected people who were personally attacked by giving them the right [to] respond. So it was not a good thing to get rid of.
So in other words, if I'm on the Bill O'Reilly show today, ... if he said something about me on the air, he would have to give me the right to reply.
It wouldn't necessarily have to be on the O'Reilly program. If Fox could show that it had other programs on in the course of the schedule that gave different, opposing views, that would be good enough. ...
So that made people think twice before they said something. ... But that doesn't exist today.
No. ... If something like that happened today -- let's say it happened more than once, repeatedly -- a citizen could challenge the renewal of the broadcast license, although ... O'Reilly's only on cable. ... -- Then probably you couldn't do anything about it.
So cable is totally exempt from this?
We've got a half-slave, half-free system today. Cable is not under any content regulation whatever. ...
There's no cop on the beat?
There is no cop on the beat in cable. There are some voluntary things that the cable people do, as I say, but there is no cop on the beat. There is no FCC there.
... You quoted President Kennedy saying, "Politicians and broadcasters really have the same job, and that's to lead and not just pander to what is the lowest common denominator."
I never saw that quote until much later. If I had known that quote, and if I had known [Edward R.] Murrow's quote, I would have used both of them in that speech to the broadcasters.
You mean [Murrow's quote, "This instrument can teach; it can illuminate, yes; and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box."]
Right. But I didn't know each of those. But President Kennedy said that in a speech to broadcasters in Baltimore in the '50s, and it seemed to me to be an exact analysis, a very good analysis; ... [that broadcasters] should be leading and not following to serve the public interest. It seems to me broadcasters have the job, the responsibility, that they imposed upon themselves. They were not drafted into the Army. They chose this kind of a life. But they chose to serve the public interest, and that means that they should be leading and providing fairness and opinion. If you believe in a self-governing society, in a democracy, what is more important than having the opportunity for citizens to learn and to weigh opinions and analysis and information? That's what broadcasters have to do.
But the response is, it's not our job to be part of some elite that determines what the public wants or is interested in; the public interest is what the public is interested in.
I reject the word "elite." It's your job to listen to everybody, not just the elite. But it's your job to inform, and it's your job to be a very good citizen. That's the most important thing.
Does PBS have a political bias?
I don't think so. I hear that criticism all the time, but I think PBS leans over backward to present all points of view. I think public radio tries to present all points of view. ... Many of the people who work in broadcasting -- many of them, not just PBS or NPR, but broadcasting in general, I suppose -- tend toward the liberal side, but there are many that are not. So I don't think that that's so. ...