On this date—May 9—in 1961, Newton Minow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, issued his famous description of television as “a vast wasteland.” It turns out that the famous words were the edited version of a phrase created by journalist and JFK speechwriter John Bartlow Martin, a Hamilton, Ohio native who spent most of his childhood and youth in Indianapolis, Indiana. Martin became a prominent Midwestern journalist before working in politics.
While the description of TV as a “vast wasteland” has become part of our private and public discourse, the context for the phrase is more complex and sheds a stronger light on what Minow was saying. Minow said that when TV is good, nothing is better, but watching television in America for a length of time gives the impression of a “vast wasteland”—an emotional and mental desert. He delivered his speech to the National Association of Broadcasters. Its formal title was “Television and the Public Interest.” He was speaking in the wake of quiz show and pop music payola scandals, and also wanted broadcasters to provide more public interest programming in exchange for the generous licenses broadcasters had giving them free and exclusive use of the airwaves.
Minow told them that when “television is good, nothing—not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers—nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse.” He then went on to complain about the “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’ll 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.”
On one hand it’s hard not to chuckle about his comments when we consider that modern networks like ME TV offer programming from the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies as a respite from the coarseness and violence of our era. Not long ago I saw a series—on PBS of all places—highlighting the achievements of America’s postwar television shows. But there was plenty that was inane on TV when he made his comment. There was no PBS, no Sesame Street, no cable television programming featuring public access. The big three networks held all the cards. News broadcasts lasted only fifteen minutes. Television documentaries were nowhere to be found.
Minow’s speech became famous, and he later said he was frustrated that newsmen focused on the words “vast wasteland” instead of “public interest.” But things happened in the wake of his speech. News broadcasts were expanded, and networks began creating documentaries, leading in turn to special programs such as 60 Minutes. PBS was created. Other channels were made available through UHF and cable. And the media would become increasingly important in all our lives, further intensifying the debate about its effects, both good and bad.
Newton Minow is eighty-eight now, and has remained active in public life. In a 2011 article for The Atlantic upon the fiftieth anniversary of his speech, Minow had praise for all of the positive changes that have occurred and the quality offerings that are available on TV. However, he also noted the trends that bother him: the pervasiveness of sex and violence and the targeting of children by advertisers.
But what about the man who gave Minow the famous phrase, albeit in edited form? John Bartlow Martin was a friend and colleague of Minow’s. He told Minow that one time, while researching a magazine article, he watched twenty straight hours of television and described TV as “a vast wasteland of junk.” Martin was one of four writers who contributed drafts of the speech, and Minow edited “vast wasteland of junk” down to the bare and emphatic “vast wasteland.”
Martin will eventually be featured in an extensive profile on this blog, but here’s some information on this distinguished reporter and non-fiction writer who deserves to be better known. As noted above, he was born in Hamilton, Ohio and was brought up in Indianapolis. He was three years old when his family moved to Indiana. He described his childhood as dark. His parents frequently quarreled, and the family also suffered the loss of one of Martin’s brothers. He became interested in literature and writing in high school and entered DePauw University at age sixteen, but was expelled after he was caught drinking in his dorm room. He began working for the Indianapolis bureau of the Associated Press and later landed a job with the Indianapolis Times. He returned to DePauw, eventually editing the school paper and earning his degree.
Martin moved to Chicago and became a freelance writer. He wrote both hard news stories and detective fiction—Martin had learned how to cover the police beat at the Indianapolis Times. Martin had a natural sympathy for the cast-offs and downtrodden of society, and wrote often of crime, poverty, race, politics, and labor. After Army service in World War II, Martin began placing articles with major magazines such as Harper’s and Collier’s. Martin really broke into the big time with a 1947 story in Harper’s about a mine explosion in Centralia, Illinois.
In 1952 he met Adlai Stevenson and became one of his speechwriters. Martin later wrote a two-volume biography of Stevenson and eventually worked for John and Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. JFK appointed Martin as ambassador to the Dominican Republic, and Martin became an authority on that country. Martin continued to write and later taught at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Chicago. He died on January 3, 1987 at age 71.
I first became acquainted with John Bartlow Martin through a wonderful book he wrote called Indiana: An Interpretation, which was first published in 1947 and reprinted by Indiana University Press in 1992. (This book will also be profiled on this blog at some point in the future).
Martin wrote later in his life that when his journalism career kicked into high gear that he was writing “a million words a year.” I hope readers will take a look at Martin’s life and works and read some of those words—but in the case of Minow’s speech, he contributed a couple of words that still resonate to this day.
New York Times obituary on John Bartlow Martin, January 5, 1987.
Introduction by James H. Madison to Indiana: An Interpretation. Indiana University Press, 1992.
Wikipedia: John Bartlow Martin.
Wikipedia: Wasteland Speech.
Atlantic Monthly, May 11, 2011. James Fallows: “Where the Phrase ‘Great Wasteland’ Came From.
Atlantic Monthly, February 24, 2011. Newton Minow: “A Vaster Wasteland.”