Journalism in the Digital Age
In 1961, Newton Minow—then chairman of the Federal Communications Commission—delivered a landmark speech to the National Association of Broadcasters on “Television and the Public Interest,” in which he described television programming as a “vast wasteland” and advocated for public interest programming. Fifty years—and innumerable advances in media communications—later, Minow visited HLS for a forum exploring the future of journalism and the role of the state in the construction of the public sphere.
“News and Entertainment in the Digital Age: A Vast Wasteland Revisited” took place on Sept. 12 and featured special guests from the news media, regulatory and academic arenas. Moderator and Harvard Law School Professor Jonathan Zittrain ’95 asked Minow and guests to reflect on the changed landscape of television and the broader media ecosystem, and to identify lessons learned that may offer insight into the next 50 years of media and public discourse.
“Television had become the dominant form of communication in our country, but there had been very little discussion about what that meant in terms of public responsibility and public interest,” said Minow. “I was determined to start that discussion, even though I knew my speech would not be well-received.” He added that his speech prompted “Gilligan’s Island” executive producer Sherwood Schwartz to name the ship that ran aground “the S.S. Minnow.”
Minow believes that the problems that plagued television and communication 50 years ago are still present today.
Jonathan Alter, a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at Newsweek, added that the business model of the news industry further steers news organizations away from the responsibility they have to the public interest.
“The business model of the news business is now dysfunctional, because talk is cheap and reporting is expensive. The vast wasteland now has this big ‘Tower of Babel’ on top of it,” Alter said.
Author and presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin was among those in the audience, and she remarked on the deleterious effects that the ‘Tower of Babel’ has had on the public interest.
“When President Kennedy gave his Cuban Missile Crisis speech, there were no pundits on after he gave it. They cut back to regular programming, so the public could absorb it,” she said. “I don’t know what we do about the fact that we need the public to push the country to social and political change, and leadership needs that relationship to get the public engaged, but the media has made that difficult.”
Co-sponsored by the Dean’s Office and Harvard’s Nieman Foundation, the forum was organized by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at HLS. Other guests included HLS Dean Martha Minow (who is one of Newton Minow’s daughters); and Professors Terry Fisher ’82, Yochai Benkler ’94 and John Palfrey ’01.