John F. Kennedy: The Promise Revisited

By Paul Harper; Joann P. Krieg | Go to book overview
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The New Frontier and the Vast Wasteland

Mary Ann Watson

For those who lived through it, the New Frontier era is a period of American history rich with the memory of flickering monochrome images. It began with the blinding glare of sunlight on fresh January snow and ended with an unruly black horse following a flag-draped coffin.

In just three years the significance of television in American life grew dramatically. As a result of the "Great Debates" and network election coverage in 1960, the medium was hailed as a profound new factor in the way we govern ourselves. It was the way television was to be governed in this democratic society, however, that would become one of the most visible issues of the Kennedy administration.

Media historians have labeled the years between 1953 and 1960 as a period of "moderate regulation" in the broadcast industry. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) grappled with technical issues and was only minimally involved with the programming responsibilities of broadcasters. This passive stance was not a matter of legal limitations, but rather of philosophy. A suggested motto for the comissioners during this time was, "The agency that regulates least is the agency that regulates best." 1

John Kennedy came into the Oval Office with a different philosophy. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., historian and special assistant to Kennedy, writes of the president's plan for his administration: "His series of distinguished appointments to regulatory agencies expressed the theory that these agencies should respond to the public interest rather than the industries regulated. This naturally outraged the businessmen, who, in earlier years had grown used to regarding regulatory agencies as adjuncts to their own trade associations." 2

The FCC was an agency in dire need of an infusion of New Frontier idealism and reform. In March of 1960, FCC Chairman John C. Doerfer resigned "because


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