Let's Hear It for the Common Man

Lee Loevinger died some weeks ago at the age of 91. Newspapers like The New York Times
and The Washington Post
mentioned his service on the Minnesota Supreme Court and as a trust-buster for the Department of Justice. Most included that he had also served as an FCC commissioner, leaving out that he succeeded to the seat left vacant by the resignation of Chairman Newton Minow, who is still famous for having called television a "vast wasteland."

Judge Loevinger also made a notable speech, one I have turned to from time to time for an infusion of good sense. It was 1966 in New Jersey, at one of those dreary trade meetings that are part of every industry, drearier still because casino gambling had not yet come to Atlantic City. Such gatherings are necessary lubricant to any industry, but their proceedings are rarely of concern to outsiders.

There, he said, "The common man has every right to be common," a simple observation that still resonates with me to this day.

"There is more nonsense, garbage and hogwash spoken, written and printed about television," he said, "than about any other subject with the possible exception of sex."

Although television broadcasting had begun, at least experimentally, before World War II, it was not until the late 1950s that it was available over the whole country. So, in 1966, Judge Loevinger was speaking to something of a novelty, a much discussed novelty.

"Television," his speech continued, "is not and has no prospect of being either the salvation or the damnation of mankind. It will not and should not take the place or perform the function of the school, the church, the home or even the parents."

He also addressed the relatively new phenomenon of talk radio and call-in radio programs, saying, "Talk is a staple of radio, and the talk, more often than not, is a discussion of public affairs and community problems. ... Never in history have so many ordinary citizens had so much opportunity to speak so freely to so wide a community. What is said is often the product of ignorance or prejudice, and many are annoyed, but I count such opportunity a contribution to democracy."

Then Judge Loevinger closed his address: "The one thing that all concerned with the mass media must recognize is that the common man has every right to be common. The common man is entitled to prefer and demand entertainment that meets his common taste. To attempt to transform a mass medium into a means of expression for the elite is a kind of reverse bowdlerization as presumptuous as it is futile." Those are still words to remember today.