Current Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski and former chairman Newt Minow conversed on the state of the media Monday at the National Press Club.
The occasion was the marking of the 50th anniversary of Minow's famous "Vast Wasteland" speech to the National Association of Broadcasters sponsored by George Washington University's Global Media institute. The event would have had a hard time living up to its billing, with Newton bill as one of the Knights of the Kennedy Administration's "Camelot" passing the symbolic torch to a new generation of media knight, Genachowski.
It didn't exactly feel like that, however. Genachowski did not bite on offers to label today's landscape, other than to say it needed to include more mobile broadband and a new model for supporting the grunt work of journalism. Minow got a lengthy and glowing intro from Genachowski, who said the former chairman's set a standard for excellence that continued to "guide and inspire us at the FCC."
Minow said that the two words he wished had been remembered from that speech were 'public interest," not "vast wasteland.' Genachowski said the speech was as relevant today as it was 50 years ago. He said the speech was celebrated because it was a speech for all time, and primarily about the power of technology and communications to connect and empower people.
He said that, reading between the lines, the speech envisioned new services like Twitter and Facebook and mobile phones. the speech was not about one technology, but all technologies, said Genachowski.
Genachowski's tie to Minow is more than their shared experience as FCC chairman. Minow's daughter Martha, president of Harvard Law School, was both Genachowski's and President Barack Obama's law professor. He called Minow's three daughters the Charlie's Angels of jurisprudence; though he said he hoped he was not struck down for using an Aaron Spelling reference.
Minow said he did not think today's TV landscape was a vast wasteland, primarily because of the increased choice it offered. If you want news, there are news channels; if you wanted food programming, there were networks for that too.
Moderator Frank Sesno, formerly of CNN and currently with GW, pressed him on the news point, saying that some people argued there was more talk than reporting, more cable noise than news. Minow agreed, saying it was that love of controversy that had driven the focus on his "vast wasteland" line.
Genachowski said that the Minow speech resonated not just because it was a catchy phrase, but because it articulated what a lot of people were thinking. His challenge to do better and his optimism and vision inspired people throughout the nation, said the current chairman.
Genachowski had a present for Minow, a collection of the letter his agency predecessor received after his speech, most supporting his call for better programming.
Minow said he remembered one of those letters, which asked: "What time does the vast wasteland go on?"