NEWTON N. MINOW, author of the oft-quoted and unheeded ''vast wasteland'' speech, likes to ask his audiences, What is the most important educational institution in America: (a) Harvard, (b) Yale, (c) Columbia, or (d) none of the above? The answer, of course, is (d).
The real educator is television. ''More people learn more each day from television,'' Mr. Minow points out, ''than from any other source.''
FCC's early mandate
In the early 1960s, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under Minow's chairmanship threatened to strip stations of their coveted licenses unless they obeyed the law to operate in the public interest. As trustee of this powerful ''tele-university,'' the FCC briefly got it right. To Minow, the public interest meant simply serving the public good.
To chairman Reed Hundt's present-day FCC, four communications law-yers and a former commercial broadcaster, the ''public interest'' means serving powerful conglomerates whose only allegiance is to their collective purse. The FCC's latest atrocity against the public-interest standard is waiving a ''technical'' violation of the law by the irrepressible Rupert Murdoch, letting him keep control of the eight core stations of his Fox Network and sparing him a $200 million tax bill.
The law says foreign interests may control no more than 25 percent of a station. But Mr. Murdoch's Australia-based News Corporation owns 99 percent. Its newspaper and broadcast web now stretches across to more than two-thirds of the globe. The commissioners ruled unanimously that all he need do to keep Fox intact is convince them that a waiver is in the public interest. This should be no problem for a mediarch with a history of mastering the delicate art of ''waiving'' himself through more impassable political gates than the Scarlet Pimpernel.
For the FCC, there seems to be no question that it's in our interest to preserve for our culture and our kids a network that has, in the ''public interest,'' brought us ''The Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers'' and ''Melrose Place,'' and has no news and public affairs department.
'Public interest' twisted
In the late 1920s, the FCC's predecessor, the Federal Radio Commission, adopted regulations that forced hundreds of noncommercial stations off the air in favor of an industry dominated by networks and paid for entirely by advertising. Since then, the legal requirement that stations operate in the ''public interest, convenience, and necessity'' has been twisted to mean literally that what is best for the corporate owners is best for the public.
That's why the oldest and most powerful sitting commissioner, James Quello, a professed Democrat who has behaved consistently like a Republican since his appointment in 1974, could declare in preserving the so-called fourth network: ''The record unequivocally shows that Fox is operating in the public interest.''
Why? Just take a peek at it. Mr. Quello ran WJR Detroit and was a vice president of Capital Cities Broadcasting, now owner of ABC, before joining the commission. A staunch supporter of Presidents Nixon and Reagan, Quello helped shepherd the Republican crusade to deregulate the industry in the '80s, reducing the public-interest standard to rubble.
The result: FCC finds itself powerless before the mediarchy as it confronts a set of paramount issues affecting the place of the great ''tele-university'' in our lives.
The FCC has capitulated on efforts by parent, teacher, and citizen groups to lay down mandatory requirements to air high-quality educational programs. The drive has faltered before industry arguments that stations have a First Amendment right to feed children what they choose, an interpretation Thomas Jefferson and James Madison hardly could have had in mind.
FCC has failed to act
Quello has led the charge against reform, even though he told a trade journal in 1993 that, regarding kidvid, the public interest should take precedence over First Amendment claims. The FCC has proved equally impotent in dealing with the inflammatory tilt to the right of talk radio hosts and the sleaze and prurience of Howard Stern. It has failed to address demands for a spectrum-fee levy on broadcasters, who get access to lucrative public frequencies for nothing. Such revenues could help end public broadcasting's dependence on a politically fickle Congress.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich's Progress and Freedom Foundation reportedly got the FCC's attention on the Murdoch case by blueprinting a drastic FCC overhaul. Mr. Gingrich, of course, has a lucrative book contract with Murdoch. President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore sidestep champion-healthy mass telecommunications and criticize excessive violence on the commercial airwaves, but sidestep real changes. They might well consider countering Gingrich by appointing a Citizen's Commission on Broadcasting and Cable that would supply its blueprint for the great ''tele-university'' and resurrect the public interest on the air. It could start by calling for the appointment of real citizen-viewers and citizen-listeners to membership on the FCC.