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Jewish World Review May 24, 2001 / 2 Sivan, 5761

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

Is a speech a speech if no one listens? -- WASHINGTON | Forty years ago this month, Newton Minow -- then the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission -- delivered his famous "vast wasteland" speech.

Speaking to the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington, Minow said:

"I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit-and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you -- and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland."

Minow's speech received extensive coverage -- and was so influential, in the way it focused attention on television's alleged failings, that its anniversary has been noted this year.

But perhaps the most instructive thing about this is that television, for all its faults, has prospered in the 40 years since Minow's speech -- while speeches, as a means of persuasive and widely heeded communication, have suffered and languished.

Today, if an FCC chairman were to make a speech about what he perceived to be the sad state of the broadcasting industry, what do you think the chances are that large segments of the American public would be made aware of the speech? Speeches get made all the time -- on the floors of legislatures, at banquets, at corporate events -- but there is something vaguely old-fashioned-feeling about them as a form. They exist -- sort of like needlepoint -- but they are seldom thought of as conduits that are useful in reaching the American people.

How, today, are important points made to the public? The preeminent vehicle is the -- here's that terrible phrase -- sound bite. A quick press conference in front of the cameras accomplishes the same objective a real speech once did: It delivers to a wide public the point the speaker wants to make.

As it is, for years political reporters have quickly scanned printed advance text of politicians' speeches, asking each other, "Where's the lead?" They find it -- perhaps on page 3, paragraph 2 -- and decide that these are the speaker's most significant words even before the speaker has uttered those words. Fact is, speechwriters for a long time have constructed speeches precisely that way: They determine what nugget of a message can be summed up in a paragraph, then build the rest of the speech around it.

A speech is looked at considerably more skeptically than it once was. If a politician makes a brilliant speech, the first thing people want to know is: Who wrote it? They instinctively don't give the speaker credit for crafting the words he says. And after a speech has concluded, the activity the public has been conditioned to find more entertaining and illuminating -- the (terrible word again) spin -- commences. That is where the news is made: In the post-speech analysis and comments.

Even the speeches that make big news often do so for reasons not traditionally associated with oratory. Last summer, for example, the nation was endlessly told that Al Gore's speech at the Democratic National Convention would be the most important of his life. But what made news -- what was talked about -- was not the speech, but the kiss he bestowed upon his wife before the speech. (The attention paid to it was like the old song lyric, "I saw a man, he danced with his wife," come to life.)

If a government official were to use the phrase "vast wasteland" today, it would probably not even be noticed. First of all, the major media would not give coverage to the speech. And in our trash-talking era of obscenities and name-calling and harsh assured-mutual-destruction insults, "vast wasteland" would not register. It would sound arty, cultured -- it would be lost in the din.

The phrases that stick today do not come from speeches. The lasting ones are one-liners uttered by fictional characters in movies -- "Show me the money" would trump "day of infamy" in the world in which we reside.

Anyway -- the stemwinder is dead; the quick hit is the lexical currency of the land. The television wasteland may not be any less vast, but the land of the influential speech is the size of Rhode Island.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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