📺 Is TV still a “vast wasteland”?

The Daily Reader

May 9, 2023

Newton Minow died the other day, and every obit pretty much led with the same thing…

He was the one who called television a “vast wasteland”. Said it in a speech to a luncheon of television executives back in 1961, when he was the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

Great line. But, well, I hate to be the guy who quibbles with history . . .

Yes, Minow said it. But he didn’t come up with it. John Bartlow Martin did.

At which point, even my fellow Baby Boomers readers are collectively saying, “Who?”

Of course, you’ve forgotten John Bartlow Martin, if you ever knew about him at all. He’s a writer. And most writers are born to be forgotten, except by other writers.

Martin was, among other things, a speechwriter for Democratic politicians. Before that he was an outstanding journalist, who churned out deep-dive investigations into subjects most people paid no attention to.

You might say he was a Reader writer long before the Reader ever existed.

My favorite Martin article was titled “Incident at Fernwood.” It’s an article he wrote for Harper’s in 1949. It’s about a three-day rampage by white south-siders, enraged because Black families moved into their neighborhood. It’s a powerful, deep and revealing insight into the racial fears and hatred in Chicago.

It should be required reading in the public schools. Instead, it’s buried behind a Harper’s paywall. Thanks for nothing, Harper’s.

To his credit, Minow never tried to conceal Martin’s role in the creation of the “vast wasteland” line, once telling the Atlantic . . .

“I had the help of four drafts from different writers, but the best one by far was from my dear friend John Bartlow Martin who volunteered to help me. John’s draft included ‘vast wasteland of junk’ and I deleted ‘of junk.’”

Guess that makes it sort of a collaborative effort, like a song written by Lennon and McCartney. 

But is it accurate? On the one hand, it’s true. There’s always been a lot of junk on TV. On the other hand, there’s a lot of good stuff, too. 

I’m not sure why, but Get Smart comes to mind. That’s the 60s sitcom with the shoe-phone gag, that never fails to crack me up. Check it out for yourself.

As I write this, the screenwriters—the modern day equivalents of the folks who came up with the shoe phone gag—are on strike. One issue being artificial intelligence. 

If Hollywood execs have their way, they’ll eventually replace writers with machines. Then the only people making money will be the people who own the machines. As the greedy bastards push on in their effort to destroy what’s left of the middle class. Sorry, didn’t mean to get all political.

Coincidentally, Jerry Springer also recently died. His show being the epitome of what many might call Exhibit A of the “vast wasteland”.

I was always sympathetic to Springer. I thought he was ahead of his time in giving voice to the voiceless. Plus, Springer had a sly sense of humor. He once quipped . . .

“I’ve been virtually everything you can’t respect: a lawyer, a mayor, a major-market news anchor and a talk-show host. Pray for me. If I get to heaven, we’re all going.”

Funny line. It came in a commencement speech Springer delivered at Northwestern. 

My guess is Springer didn’t actually write it. Probably some uncredited and unknown speech writer, who, if things go the way they’re going, is destined to be replaced by a machine.

🎙Listen to The Ben Joravsky Show 🎙

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Join us on May 23 at 6:30 PM

Join Chicago Reader‘s Katie Prout and documentary photographer Lloyd DeGrane at Haymarket House for a conversation about collaborative journalism and harm reduction as tools to address Chicago’s ongoing twin crises: overdose deaths and homelessness.



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May 4 – 17, 2023 
Vol. 52, No. 1

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