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. He challenged his audience “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, without a magazine, without a newspaper…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.”

Fifty years – and innumerable advances in media communications – later, Minow visited Harvard Law School 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 September 12, and featured special guests from the news media, regulatory and academic arenas. Moderator and Harvard Law School Professor Jonathan Zittrain asked Minow and guests to reflect upon the changed landscape of television and the broader media ecosystem, and to identify lessons learned that may help to offer insight into the next 50 years of media and public discourse.

In his remarks, Minow explained the impetus for the “Television and the Public Interest” speech, in which he called for imagination, excellence, and creativity in television programming.

“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. I was determined to start that discussion, even though I knew my speech would not be well-received,” he said, adding 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. He said that the discussion of public responsibility that was missing then is still neglected now.

[L-R] Jonathan Alter, Ann Marie Lipinski, Professor Yochai Benkler, Newt Minow, and Professor Jonathan Zittrain

Jonathan Alter, currently a columnist at Bloomberg View and formerly a 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,” he said.

Alter pointed out that when Minow delivered his speech in 1961, there was only 15 minutes of news programming each night, while today 24-hour news channels dominate the news cycle.

“Now we’re lousy with ‘news,’” Alter said. “But what kind of news is it? It’s people like me babbling on MSNBC or Fox. The question I have is, if talk is cheap and reporting is expensive, how are we going to get the knowledge and quality content for consumers to make rational decisions?”

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.”

Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, furthered Alter’s discussion of the clash between the expense of newsgathering and today’s news business model. She observed that the notion that information wants to be free is undermined by the fact that information is fundamentally expensive, and that news organizations are not the only parties unwilling to fund reporting. So are consumers.

“There’s a huge disconnect for the amount it takes to fund newsgathering and the amount that consumers are actually willing to pay for it,” she said.

New York Times writer Virginia Heffernan discussed the lasting impact of Minow’s speech on not only news programming, but also on entertainment programming.

“Entertainment was vitalized by Newt’s speech, and we should be looking at that aspect of television and the news programming that walks the line, such as the magazine shows, as something that could be in the public interest,” she said. “Quality entertainment programming, such as ‘Mad Men,’ wouldn’t have been possible in an environment where television wasn’t regarded as both an art form and a public health hazard. The entertainment side is not an afterthought.”

Professor Terry Fisher, HLS Dean Martha Minow, and Newt Minow

Among the special guests in attendance were two former chairpersons of the FCC – Reed Hundt and Kevin Martin. Hundt, drawing on advice he received from Minow, offered a challenge to the law students in the audience.

“If you have the privilege to get into public office, part of the job is to figure out who you’re really representing, and then go to the people who are on the other side of those issues and tell them what you think. Don’t just try to persuade them – actually use the power of law to win,” he said. “As Newt said to me, ‘They’re not going to remember you for that long, anyhow. What really counts is that you stood up for something you believe in.’”

The forum, which was co-sponsored by the Dean’s Office at Harvard Law School and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, and organized and hosted by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, took place in Austin Hall and was webcast live and covered on Twitter under the hashtag #vastwasteland. Other guests included Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow (who is one of Newton Minow’s daughters); Harvard Law School professors Terry Fisher, Yochai Benkler and John Palfrey of the Berkman Center; Susan Crawford of Cardozo School of Law; Perry Hewitt of Harvard University; Ellen Goodman of Rutgers University School of Law – Camden; Nicholas Negroponte of One Laptop per Child; Tim Wu of Columbia Law School; Ethan Zuckerman of C4/Berkman Center; and others.