Flying east, two experiences melded into a thought around a phrase. Forty-six years and ten days ago, Newton Minow spoke at the annual meeting of the National Association of Broadcasters, the organization of people who ran television and radio in the United States. Minow was the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates broadcasting. Today broadcasting seems to regulate the FCC, but that’s not my point. Here’s the section of Minow’s speech that contained the phrase.
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 you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit and loss sheet or rating book to distract you — and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.
A wasteland. The waste land. Hardly an original construction. It’s in the bible, and it’s in an eighty-five-year-old poem.
My flights from Seattle to New York City and New York to Rochester constituted an agreeable first experience on Jet Blue. That airline is still often called an upstart, although its startup was years ago and it is quite successful, give or take the occasional snowstorm snafu. One of Jet Blue’s points of pride is its seat-back television sets featuring forty-one channels transmitted to the plane from a satellite. In preparation for a book group discussion later this month, my plan for the trip had been to read T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, along with an analysis of that nearly impenetrable1922 poem. After an hour-and-a-half of Eliot, I was ready for something simpler, so I watched television. Full disclosure: I made my living in television news for twenty-five years, but life is full of other pursuits, and I rarely watch TV.
I agree with Minow’s first line about television. When it is good, it is magnificent. At the time of his speech in 1961, color television was six years old. So was the TV version of Gun Smoke. Video tape was even younger. Viewers could still see live drama on television. The Andy Griffith Show was brand new, years away from perpetual reruns. The Huntley-Brinkley Report and the CBS Evening News were fifteen minutes long. They delivered the news of the day; the misdeeds of people famous for being famous were not on the menu. The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents were among the prime time dramas. All of those programs were, to apply Minow’s strict standard, good. Yesterday on Jet Blue’s seat-back console, I found nothing of those programs’ quality. Nothing. That includes newscasts from the BBC and CBS. It includes the prime time series, which were uniformly centered on fiery deaths, incest, in-your-face adultery, summary executions at close range and, for comic relief, now and then a car chase. The Daily Show and the Colbert Report showed flashes of wry intelligence, but little that matches the penetrating wit of Sid Caesar, Steve Allen, Ernie Kovacs, or even of George Gobel.
The shows devoted to standup comics were beneath criticism. These people claim to be descended from Lennie Bruce? Give me a break.
Eliot’s The Waste Land is a difficult poem. It is packed with references and allusions to the bible, Greek mythology, Chaucer and Fraser’s The Golden Bough, among other sources reflecting his classical scholarship at Harvard. He tried to explain parts of it in a series of notes, some of which merely muddied the waters. Some critics say that the poem is Eliot’s effort to purge himself of the desolation he felt when he contemplated the state of humanity following World War One. In any case, its forecast is of a world whose prospects are for further moral and spiritual decay.
I tend to be an optimist. Nothing I saw on Jet Blue’s screen last night encouraged me, but a long time ago I decided not to let television define the world. On the return trip, I’ll ignore the seat back monitor and read a book.