Serve the Public Good?

When I think of a wasteland, I think of a huge open space with minimal vegetation and barely any life.  A chairman of the Federal Communications Committee once compared American television programming to a “Vast Wasteland.”  In his ground-shaking speech, Newton Minow calls the programs “a procession of game shows . . . violence, sadism, murder, Western bad men, Western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons.”  He wasn’t far from the truth.  Even in those times—50 years ago—television was meant to be both shocking and addicting.  As the chairman of the FCC, Minow held the opinion that television belonged to the American public and should be used to serve the public interest.

What is the public interest?  Is it what the public is interested in, which would include everything from game shows to cartoons?  Or does the phrase “public interest” refer to a more refined term—the public good?  Minow believed that the airwaves belonged to the American people and not the programmers who disseminated the content.  Since the airwaves belonged to the people, the content that was sent over them should be used for the good of the people.  That sounds good, right?  Of course it does.

Going further, Minow voiced the opinion that the public good included the right of politicians to get free airtime to talk to the American public.  When I first thought about this, I did not agree with the idea at all.  In my opinion, the broadcasters are private businesses that have the right to make profits.  The government shouldn’t be allowed to take away a valuable source of income.  Then I read Minow’s reasoning behind his opinion and it just may have changed my mind.  He said, “Put simply, candidates for public office have to raise huge amounts of money to buy access to the public airwaves so they can talk to us. And because airtime is so expensive, they talk to us in slogans and slurs, and only obliquely, if at all, about substance.”  If politicians were allowed free airtime, they would be able to share their political standing more fully, thus serving the American public in a better way.

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