The wasteland revisited -- it's grimmer yet

July 23, 1995|By David Zurawik

"Abandoned in the Wasteland: Children, Television and the First Amendment," by Newton N. Minow and Craig L. Lamay. 224 pages. New York: Hill and Wang. $20

The debate over television violence and children is back on the front burner this summer, and 'Abandoned in the Wasteland' is one of the primary reasons. It's not especially well written and the thesis is not original, yet it has the potential to be one of the most important books ever published on children and American television.

The central argument - and this book is such a fervent argument for reform that it calls to mind political pamphlets of the Colonial period - is that television is doing grievous harm to children. And, although we would certainly try to protect children from such harm at the hands of anyone else, we let unscrupulous television programmers have their way with American kids out of wrongheaded notions about the First Amendment, freedom of speech and censorship.

The truth of the matter, the authors say, is that there's a substantial legislative and judicial history of trying to protect children from certain forms of expression and speech. Furthermore, we have a history (on paper, at least) of insisting that broadcasters serve the public interest in return for the right to make millions of dollars using public airwaves. Somehow, though, we have allowed the television industry to define public interest exclusively in terms of the marketplace.

In the words of the authors, "We neglect discussion of moral responsibility by converting the public interest into an economic abstraction, and we use the First Amendment to stop debate rather than enhance it."

While Mr. Minow and Mr. Lamay convincingly make their case for the need to reconsider what the First Amendment should allow when it comes to television and children, the real power of 'Abandoned in the Wasteland' lies in Mr. Minow's credentials.

In media circles, the name Minow is as inextricably linked to the word wasteland as that of Eliot in literary circles. In 1961, as President Kennedy's chief of the Federal Communications Commission, Mr. Minow delivered one of the finest speeches ever on the topic of television and social responsibility. In it, he called commercial television a 'vast wasteland.' The bite lives on.

As a former law partner of Adlai E. Stevenson and current professor of communications law at Northwestern University, Mr. Minow is a certified, card-carrying, liberal Democrat and intellectual. The news: This liberal is now calling for programming limits - a position usually taken only by conservatives.

The book is a worthwhile investment for any parent. One chapter offers a realistic nine-point plan to make television a better and safer place for children. (Example: Require all new TV sets to have the channel-blocking technology that's come to be known as V-chip.) But its thrust is directed at the current policymakers in Washington, which might be why it sometimes reads like a legal brief.

The best measure of the book's success to date is that Vice President Al Gore and Reed E. Hundt, President Clinton's FCC chief, have vowed this month to launch new initiatives to limit TC violence and increase educational programming for children. Both explained their positions with arguments from the book.

'Abandoned in the Wasteland' makes it all right for liberals to say and perhaps even act on what many of them really feel as parents when they think about what's happening to their children in front of the television set.

Some in the press will probably attack Mr. Minow's message with the knee-jerk, First-Amendment platitudes reified in the culture of journalism. But with folks inside the White House reading it, 'Abandoned in the Wasteland' might just be enough of an intellectual spark to ignite a flame of genuine reform after 40 years of child abuse by the television industry.

David Zurawik has been The Sun's television critic since 1989. From 1985 to 1989, he worked at the Dallas Times Herald as a TV critic and city reporter. Before that, he worked as the pop culture reporter at the Detroit Free Press.

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