On Monday, an all-star group of speakers gathered at Harvard Law School to consider a phrase first spoken 50 years ago. It was on May 9, 1961 that Newt Minow, then the young head of the Federal Communications Commission, gave what would be called the Wasteland Speech:
When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you 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, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book 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.
That got tongues wagging — the media likes nothing so much as to talk about the media. And when New York Times reporter Val Adams put the “vast wasteland” quote in his second paragraph — and a headline writer pulled it into Cheltenham bold italic on the Times’ front page — a new media catchphrase was born.
The event Monday tried to put the vast wasteland into today’s much vaster context. Minow himself, now 85, gave remarks, and a cast of worthies from all corners of media and media law contributed: Berkmanites Yochai Benkler and John Palfrey, FCC emeriti Reed Hundt and Kevin Martin, legal scholar Ellen Goodman, journalist Jonathan Alter, MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte, and what felt like a cast of thousands, all ably guided by Jonathan Zittrain. (Of particular note were Martha Minow, Newt’s daughter and now dean of Harvard Law School, and Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of the Nieman Foundation and thus my boss.)
Berkman’s now posted video of the event — take a look.