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The Vast TV Wasteland

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With the 2012 campaign in high gear, public distrust of politics and media at high levels, 55 percent of Americans believing we are in a recession or depression (according to a recent Gallup poll) and our political discourse reaching freak-show lows with a media circus starring Donald Trump, it can be instructive to look back a half-century in time ...

Fifty years ago this week, Newton Minow, then President Kennedy's chairman of the FCC, gave his powerful speech calling television a "vast wasteland" one week after Alan Shepard became the first American to touch the edge of space and begin our march to the Moon.

Earlier this week I looked Minow up at Sidley Austin, the prestigious law firm where he still works, and we chatted about the state of our politics and media.

"Television news today too often concentrates on controversy and looks for extremes, which only lowers our level of civilized discourse," he told me Wednesday. "They underestimate the intelligence of viewers."

Most Americans agree with Minow. In another recent Gallup poll, public confidence in television news barely surpasses 20 percent. Trust in Congress is even lower. Our public discourse has become a vast wasteland of insults, spin, propaganda and slander aimed to destroy political opponents.

This wasteland is worsened by waves of negative campaign advertising paid for by partisans and special interests, and by many TV "commentators" who repeat the mudslinging and spin instead of the serious discussions voters and viewers hunger for.

In his 1961 speech, Minow said that when television is good, nothing is better, and when television is bad, nothing is worse.

Last week, in my column "Made in the USA," I praised ABC World News Tonight for its multi-segment series about American companies and workers, and how Americans can support them.

The real jobless rate is 16 percent of the nation. Many millions of Americans intensely believe that jobs are the No. 1 issue. Yet there is no major jobs proposal pending in Congress. There is little serious discussion on television about the causes and solutions to the jobs crisis, even though this is far more urgently important to Americans than the president's birth certificate, Donald Trump's rants, Lindsay Lohan's sentence or insider political tactics.

In Minow's 1961 speech he emphasized that television should play an important role for the public interest. He brilliantly realized in 1961 that the space program puts ideas into space, as well as people, in a nation and world hungry for intelligent and insightful news about matters that powerfully affect viewers' jobs, security and families.

Perhaps the president and Congress should sequester themselves and watch C-SPAN 3 to relearn lessons from Lincoln and Grant, Jefferson and Madison, Roosevelt and Churchill, Truman and Vandenberg, Kennedy and Reagan, who are often quoted but rarely emulated today.

America faces big challenges. Television can be a major part of the solution. Huge audiences await programming that respects their intelligence and addresses matters they care about deeply.

Brian Lamb, founder and CEO of C-SPAN, said he is optimistic about the future of quality television. In an interview Wednesday, Lamb told me: "I am hopeful because there are tremendous opportunities to do anything you want on television. It's wide open. Good programming can be produced at low cost, and viewers will find it."

I would like to see President Obama and all political leaders use television in more creative ways to better inform, educate and inspire Americans to make important decisions together.

I would like to see television execs consult with Minow, Ted Koppel and others about programs to empower Americans with knowledge about great matters, such as creating American jobs and lowering deficits, and to develop the best one-hour news show in television history for American audiences hungry for quality and international broadcast in the global market of ideas.

Brian Lamb is right about quality television: If you build it, they will come.

This column was originally published at The Hill.

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