Abandoned in the Wasteland: Children, Television & the First Amendment – Newton N. Minow and Craig L. Lamay

Typical of my wormholing (i.e. following one reference to a particular topic, then another this references, then yet another, deeper and deeper and deeper.) this book perfectly echoes my utter disgust of television. However, where my opinion and argument ends, Newton, or “Newt” as JFK used to call him, builds upon this disgust adding that broadcasters and government agonies have not only ignored the impact television has on children and its educational potential, but have simply exploited them for economic gains.

Newt was a chairman of the FCC in 1961and his passion for his beliefs are still afire thirty four years later. The book is a plea to the American people to stand up and fight for quality programming for our children by first understanding the term “public interest”, then understanding that we are the public and should be aware of our interest. He provides a thorough background of the FCC, from the their initial assignment in the late thirties, to their current function in the nineties, focussing, of course, on the issues and topic and battles fought around the broadcaster’s responsibly to the children. Newt shows that all official FCC’s rulings on this matter were merely appeasement’s to the public; poorly worded and incredibly vague notions of policies and law, pure and perfect examples of bureaucratic double speak. They never took dramatic or exact measures in any direction. Newt shows how the broadcasting and television industries, like the telecommunications and internet industries of today, are huge economic powerhouses that blatantly support the agencies created to control them.

He talks of the creation of television and how from its inception it was cursed or blessed by the intellectuals and executives of the day as either a crusader of the human spirit, or the demon of intelligencia. He finely relates statistical information about its growth by highlighting the fantastic rise of the number of sets in each American home, the staggering economic impact of television, and the number of violent acts and deaths an average child is likely to see in his or her lifetime. He talks of the interest groups and representatives fighting for educational television by demanding simply a fraction of broadcast time for children’s programming, and the network owners and corporate executives masking their loyalty to their sponsor’s and advertisers by playing the First Amendment Rights card.

He also dives deeply and even handedly into the nature of educational television and its inherent limitations. Regardless of what industry and at what revenue level, to do anything for nonprofit is a strain and never cost effective. It effects not only the quality of content, but the supply of it. Content is an aspect Newt does not go into great detail about, save to discuss the lack thereof. In an interesting reference, he cited Forbes magazine in 1993, as stating that if there were five hundred channels available to the viewing public, and each channel ran reruns, without repeating, of every prime time show that ever was in the history of the medium, broadcasters would run out of content in approximately nine weeks.

Newt’s main point, and only reason for writing the book, seems to be that nothing has changed in nearly four decades, and until we the public takes an interest, nothing ever will.

He set up a simile, or metaphor, about the introduction and impact of the printing press to television, and it had an interesting spin, one I never heard. Supported by recent research, Newt says that during the Middle Ages there was no childhood. Men and boys, woman and children existed simply, heeding the necessities of life from birth to death. When the printing press was introduced and periodicals and books became widespread, a gap was created between children and adults. Adults knew how to read and could interpret print and incorporate its messages into their daily routines. Children could not. This widened the gap between adults and children, thus creating Childhood. The introduction of television centuries later has erased that divide. Children do not need know how to read to be impacted by the dancing images and sounds before them and incorporate them, even subconsciously, into their daily routines. An interesting history of the creation and destruction of Childhood as we know it. (See. Neil Postman’s book “The Disappearance of Childhood”.)

As is often the case when I wormhole too deeply, I think to myself, “I should perhaps read an opinion from the other side of this argument.” But I never do. I don’t know whether I am just more familiar with similar thinking or afraid to have my mind changed? In this case, my argument is that I do not feel the need to sit down with a book by a RCA or a Westinghouse Executive, or an advertising industry spokesman, and read their spoutings on how television helps them reach the marketplace like nothing before, and thus helps them to sell more and more and more products. Nor do I need to hear them defend their lack of nonprofit, educational television by declaring that allocating only four percent of all air time is grossly out of proportion and a form of federal censorship. (Japan, Britain, Germany, etc, currently dedicated twelve to twenty percent of total air time to nonprofit, for children programs.)

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