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Newton Minow’s concern for children transformed TV. Here’s what he’d still change

Transcript

Judy Woodruff: It was 60 years ago this Sunday, May 9, 1961, when President John F. Kennedy's head of the Federal Communications Commission, Newton Minow, gave his first major speech, declaring America's television programming a vast wasteland.

Minow was addressing what he saw as a missed opportunities of what television could offer. There were only three networks then, all commercial. Minow's phrase became entrenched in American culture. And it helped lead to the genesis of PBS.

The television landscape has changed dramatically since then.

Newt Minow joins me now to reflect on that legacy. And he is joined by two of his three remarkable daughters. They are Martha Minow and Mary Minow. And we say hello to them at the same time.

It was 1961. You were the just, what, 35-year-old precocious head of the Federal Communications Commission. Television was exploding in popularity with Americans, but something you saw bothered you.

Newton Minow: What bothered me was that we were wasting this extraordinary technology.

I was particularly concerned about children. Children were spending more time with television than they were in school. And they were learning that -- too often, that the solution to a problem was a smack in the head or shot with a gun.

And I was very concerned that children, in particular -- and, also, I was very concerned with the lack of what we then called educational television, now called public television. And I was determined to do something about it. And so was President Kennedy.

Judy Woodruff: And what was the reaction from the commercial network bosses when you made that speech?

Newton Minow: Well, the founder of "Gilligan's Island" was so irritated with me and with what I had said that he named the sinking boat in "Gilligan's Island" the S.S. Minnow...

(LAUGHTER)

Newton Minow: ... which, actually, I think many broadcasters realized for the first time that their obligation under the law was to serve the public interest, the public interest, not the private interest.

Judy Woodruff: And we know, Newt Minow, at the time, you went on to make sure that there was a public television. Originally, it was educational television. In fact, were you involved in the launch of this station, WETA, where we broadcast the "NewsHour."

As you reflect on it, what changes began to happen at that time?

Newton Minow: I had the privilege, Judy, of giving the first license for WETA, personally giving it to Ms. Elizabeth Campbell on the same day I gave that speech.

And what I envisioned has -- my dream has been fulfilled. When I see the programs like the "NewsHour," when I see what Ken Burns has created, when I see "Sesame Street," I say, this is what I hoped would happen, and we more than fulfilled my dream.

Judy Woodruff: And, as you cast your eye across television broadly, what do you see today?

Newton Minow: Well, what we were trying to do was to enlarge choice for the viewer. And we certainly did that. There's plenty of choice today.

What I'm disappointed about is that, in the course of that, we seem to, too often, particularly in the news world, is confuse facts with opinion. And we no longer agree on what is a fact. And when that is the situation, which it is today, I think we're in a very dangerous, scary period.

Remember what Pat Moynihan, my friend who later became a senator, said. He said, this is a free country. Everybody is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts.

And now we have people who think they can make up their own facts.

Judy Woodruff: If you could wave a magic wand, what would you like to see change about what television offers today?

Newton Minow: I would like to see more "PBS NewsHour"s. I would like to see more "Sesame Street"s. I would like to see more Ken Burns. I would like to see the opportunity for people.

I -- there is a favorite quote I have almost memorized. But I would like to read it to you.

E.B. White said what he hoped television would be: "Noncommercial television should address itself to the idea of excellence, not the idea of acceptability. TV, television, should be providing the visual counterpart of the literary essay, should arouse our dreams, should satisfy our hunger for beauty, should take us on journeys, should enable us to participate in events, should present great dramas and music, explore the sea and the sky and the woods and the hills.

"It should restate and clarify the social dilemma and the political pickle. Once in a while it does, and you get a glimpse of its potential."

That's what we were dreaming about when we created public television.

Judy Woodruff: And when you made that speech that we all remember, you said it is all about what should be in the public interest.

Newt Minow, thank you very much. I think the country is grateful to you for what you did 60 years ago and ever since. Thank you.

Newton Minow: Judy, we just bless you, and hope you keep on doing what you are doing.

Judy Woodruff: Thank you on behalf of all of us.

Such a thrill to be able to talk to Newt Minow. And congratulations on the 60th anniversary of that speech.

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