Chances are you’ve never heard of Newton Minow. He’s not a minor character in a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, nor a midlevel whistleblower in the National Security Agency. He’s not even a wealthy philanthropist or an anonymous accountant in a downtown office building. But I’ll bet you’ve heard something he said . . . because it applies today more than ever.
Minow served as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission under President Kennedy. On May 9, 1961, Minow gave a speech entitled “Television and the Public Interest.” In it, he said that the television of his day was a “vast wasteland.” The words are memorable because they were, and still are, so apt. He said:
- 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 each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.
- You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials—many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.
If the broadcast medium was bad in 1961—and few today can seriously dispute Minow’s withering summary—a viewer could find many shows that today are considered classics: The Dick Van Dyke Show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Avengers, The Twilight Zone, and Gunsmoke among them. You couldn’t find much highbrow entertainment in the daily TV lineups of America’s three broadcast networks in 1961. But it’s practically a golden age compared with the endless parade of “reality shows,” “wardrobe malfunctions,” “twerking,” and soft porn that can come into our homes via cable and the public airwaves today. Expecting wisdom from the modern dreck is about as likely as finding a black-and-white TV at Sears.
Exotic and Strange
But unexpected wisdom is what we find with Duck Dynasty, a lowbrow reality show with incredible ratings. The show might even find a place of honor in Minow’s “vast wasteland.” Duck Dynasty details the exploits of the Robertson family of West Monroe, Louisiana. The patriarch, Phil Robertson, launched a successful business called Duck Commander that sells duck calls for hunters. But Duck Dynasty isn’t about how to build a successful business—the Robertson family enterprise has become much more successful since growing into the most popular show ever on the A&E network, seen in more than 100 countries.
No, what makes Duck Dynasty quack—I mean, tick!—is the reality show approach of following an exotic, slightly strange group of people around to see the odd things they do and hear the odd things they say. At first glance, the Robertsons appear to fit Minow’s description of an “unbelievable family.” The men look like holdovers from a ZZ Top convention. If their appearance isn’t strange enough for you, at the end of every episode, the clan gathers around the family dinner table and prays in thick Bayou accents. Just imagine: prayer on TV in 21st-century America!
Yet perhaps the “strangest” thing Phil Robertson has done is to speak his pro-life views clearly and unequivocally. In a video posted to YouTube, camouflage-clad Robertson says the following:
- Listen, from the time you started inside your mother’s womb, Thomas Jefferson had it right . . . you have the God-given right to life for crying out loud.
- You’re a week old inside your mother. They suck you out of there when you’re about like that. You wouldn’t be here tonight!
- And, when you got to be the size of my thumb, they suck you out. You wouldn’t be here. Then, you grow a little bigger, like my fist—and finally eight, nine months later you come out.
- And we debate whether it’s a—some woman’s right to tear you out of there a piece at a time! C’mon! You have a God-given right to live. And of all places, inside your mother . . . what in the world happened to us?
It’s a question worth repeating: With 55 million legal abortions “performed” in the last 40 years, with horrors such as the Philadelphia abortion “clinic” of Kermit Gosnell, what indeed has happened to us?
In one sense, what Robertson says in the video isn’t all that strange. According to Gallup, half of all Americans now self-identify as pro-life—9 percent more than those who call themselves pro-choice. So Robertson’s decision to align himself, however inelegantly, with the pro-life movement shouldn’t be seen as news.
And yet it is. Speaking about abortion isn’t something polite people do—but Robertson wouldn’t exactly fit into our polite society, anyway. He looks more like John the Baptist about to crash a gathering of scribes and Pharisees than a respected voice at the cultural table. And if that’s what it takes to get our attention—fine. God bless him for his effrontery.
Somehow, implausibly, out of nowhere, the American people unexpectedly got a dose of reality from reality television, or at least from one of its stars. Robertson, with his simple question—“What in the world happened to us?”—has forced us to look away from the “vast wasteland,” if only for a moment or two, and take moral stock.
Sadly, scandalously, such clarion calls are far too few as our beloved nation rushes toward the moral and spiritual precipice—if we’re not in free-fall already. Where are the other prophetic voices—perhaps more articulate and better connected to the cultural power brokers—who are willing to speak up?
Biblical scholars tell us that prophecy involves both foretelling—predicting the future—and forth-telling—telling forth the Word of God. The prophets almost always combined a moral call with their visions of the future. Where are the modern-day prophets willing to tell forth God’s Word to the denizens of today’s—to borrow a phrase from Newton Minow—vast moral wasteland? Yes, we need to creatively and lovingly share Christ’s grace with our neighbors . . . but not at the expense of his truth.
Anything less is spiritual quackery.