Former FCC chairman believes presidential debates far from ‘a vast wasteland’
Updated: June 29, 2012 8:23AM
For those who yawn at the thought of this fall’s presidential debates, Newton Minow offers a reason to watch and learn.
“(John) Kennedy told me, ‘I never would have been elected except for the presidential debates,” said Minow, the co-vice chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, who shared his insights at The Adlai Stevenson Center on Democracy in Mettawa this month.
Minow, a Chicago lawyer who became head of the Federal Communications Commission after Kennedy’s narrow election in 1960, was present at the founding of the Commission on Presidential Debates, an independent body launched in 1988 to take over a process once run by the League of Women Voters.
For the four debates (three presidential and once vice presidential) slated at U.S. universities in October, Minow said the commission is wrestling with a big issue.
“How do we adopt the debates to the new technology? How do we find a way for millions of questions to be sent in to give to the candidates?” said Minow, who’s been involved in some manner with every presidential debate in U.S. history.
For candidates to be invited to the debates, they must have at least 15 percent support in five national polls, must be on enough ballots to win the election and must be Constitutionally eligible (35 years of age and born in the United States). Minow said the 2008 debates were the first where the commission had not been sued by a non-major-party candidate (think Ralph Nader), arguing he or she should be included.
“We’ve won every case in court,” Minow said.
The octogenarian -- whose career includes a stint as chairman of PBS -- pointed out if the commission had its druthers, President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney would appear without a moderator and discuss the issues; after all, it’s the only time they talk during the campaign. He also wishes presidential elections weren’t so beholden to cash.
“I want to stress one thing -- we should not have the system we have now where candidates have to raise millions and millions of dollars to get on TV. The debates are the one place candidates don’t pay for the time,” he said.
Northwestern University Professor Craig LaMay, who has collaborated with Minow on a book about the history and future of the presidential debates, discussed the absurdities of the demands from campaigns.
“One of the funniest requests of all was during the Clinton-Bush-Perot debates (in 1992),” LaMay said. “Their lawyers asked about placement of water glasses. They finally decided water glasses could be on the floor behind them, but then they realized they’d be mooning the audience each time.”
Minow is perhaps best known for famously calling television “a vast wasteland” as head of the FCC. He had originally written “a vast wasteland of junk” but shortened it while editing. In fact, the S.S. Minnow in the 1960s television show “Gilligan’s Island” is named after him because executive producer Sherwood Schwartz was so enraged with Minow’s tenure as FCC chairman.
Minow, the Walter Annenberg professor emeritus at Northwestern University, shared a story about an end-of-the-semester student critique there that displays his self-effacing nature.
“Professor Minow, if I only had two hours left to live, I would want to spend it in your seminar,” the student wrote. Minow was so moved he brought the comments home and showed them to his wife, Jospehine. She noticed an asterisk, and they turned the page over.
“Because it would seem like eternity,” it read.