Newton Minow: FCC Chairman Who Assailed Vast Wasteland of TV

From a Washington Post obit by Adam Bernstein headlined “Newton Minow, FCC chairman who assailed ‘vast wasteland’ of TV, dies at 97”:

Newton N. Minow, the Federal Communications Commission chairman who in 1961 memorably assailed TV as a “vast wasteland” and went on to have a towering impact on broadcasting by helping shape public television, satellite communications and presidential debates, died at his home in Chicago.

The cause was a heart attack, said his daughter Nell Minow, a top authority on corporate governance.

Mr. Minow was a politically connected Chicago legal grandee and boardroom Zelig whose professional life encompassed nearly every part of the communications business over six decades.

During World War II, he served in an Army battalion that built one of the first telephone lines between China and India. As a director of National Educational Television, a forerunner of the Public Broadcasting Service, he helped obtain the funding to put “Sesame Street” on the air in 1969. He later sat on the boards of CBS, the Tribune Co. and other major broadcasters, and he chaired the PBS board in the late 1970s.

Through prominent roles on panels and commissions, Mr. Minow also worked to create a template for the modern presidential debate format that has conferred on television a defining role, beyond political advertising, in the electoral process.

Ron Simon, a curator at the Paley Center for Media in New York, called Mr. Minow “a crucial figure in expanding TV’s possibilities.”

A former clerk for the chief justice of the United States, Mr. Minow had a quick and farsighted mind that in the 1950s helped him advance into the inner circles of Democratic presidential candidate Adlai E. Stevenson II, the onetime Illinois governor, and John F. Kennedy, then a U.S. senator from Massachusetts. Two generations later, Mr. Minow helped promote the political rise of future President Barack Obama, who had been a summer associate in Mr. Minow’s Chicago law firm.

Mr. Minow was initially thrust into national attention as FCC chairman from 1961 to 1963, when he emerged as one of the boldest and most ambitious of President Kennedy’s New Frontiersmen.

The FCC mostly focused on issuing licenses for radio and television stations and setting rates for phone service, but Mr. Minow saw the job as a pulpit from which to evangelize for the public interest.

After all, he reasoned, the public owned the airwaves. And he had long been concerned — as a parent and as someone who understood TV’s ability to sway minds — by the proliferation of what he considered shallow, dollar-grubbing programming by the networks.

At 35, Mr. Minow was one of the youngest men ever to hold the FCC chairmanship when President Kennedy rewarded him with that assignment in 1961. At the time, the regulatory agency was reeling from payola scandals, involving bribes paid to disc jockeys in exchange for promotion of certain records, and rigged quiz shows. A popular joke was that the FCC’s initials stood for From Crisis to Crisis.

The FCC also was perceived to have been in the pocket of lobbyists and broadcast industry leaders. A chairman was forced to resign in 1960 after accepting a six-day cruise on the yacht of a radio and TV company president.

Mr. Minow set out to revive the agency as a watchdog.

In his first public address as FCC chairman, on May 9, 1961, he delivered a majestic bombshell at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Washington. Mr. Minow and his speechwriters borrowed from the poet T.S. Eliot and created an enduring catchphrase about the “vast wasteland” of the tube.

“When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better,” he said. “But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. … I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

“You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly, commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom.”

He called for “a wider range of choices, more diversity, more alternatives” and then threatened to hold up or revoke licenses for local TV stations; the FCC could not regulate the networks directly, only the stations they owned. “There is nothing permanent or sacred about a broadcast license,” he said.

The thrust of the speech was not novel. In his celebrated “wires and lights in a box” address to peers in 1958, CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow also called for the medium to illuminate and inspire, instead of just to entertain.

But as Richard Heffner, the historian and longtime public television host, once said, the “vast wasteland” talk was a “never-to-be-forgotten bearding right there in the lion’s very den” from the top federal regulator.

Mr. Minow drew recriminations from network executives, who called the speech sensationalized, oversimplified and unfair — elitist at best and evoking the specter of Soviet-style censorship at worst. Sherwood Schwartz, creator of the lowbrow 1960s sitcom “Gilligan’s Island,” reputedly named the marooned S.S. Minnow (with the extra N) after the FCC chief as a riposte.

The “vast wasteland” speech had little practical effect on commercial programming, but it was credited with reasserting the power of the FCC. Mr. Minow used the attention to win federal funding to greatly increase the number of educational television stations. The expanded network of stations would later coalesce into the Public Broadcasting Service in 1969.

In 1962, Mr. Minow helped foster legislation that required all TV sets to be manufactured with built-in UHF (ultrahigh frequency) tuners. The commercial networks dominated the already-crowded VHF (very high frequency) spectrum available on most TV sets until that time. Educational stations such as WETA in Washington used the UHF band.

Mr. Minow said he was initially ignorant of communications satellites but quickly grasped their importance in the Cold War and persuaded the president to spend political capital to hasten their development. He once told Kennedy they were more important than sending a man into space “because they will launch ideas, and ideas last longer than men and women.”

Mr. Minow helped persuade Congress to pass legislation that led to the creation of the Communications Satellite Corp., widely known as Comsat Corp., which over the decades became a major provider of satellite communications services.

Under Mr. Minow, the FCC also granted a license to launch Telstar, which in 1962 became the first commercial U.S. satellite. It was a crude device, limited in relaying phone and TV signals. But Telstar proved a steppingstone to the multibillion-dollar satellite industry, which has been critical to the growth of cable TV as well as the internet and sundry military applications.

“His actions laid the groundwork for so many things that would happen in the future,” Simon said of Mr. Minow. “He was able to transform this vast wasteland by methods he didn’t even anticipate.”

Obama’s legal mentor

Newton Norman Minow, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, was born in Milwaukee. His father co-owned a prosperous chain of laundries. The family emphasized education, insisting that Newton’s older brother, who had a form of cerebral palsy, be mainstreamed in public school to attend college, which he did.

After serving in the Army Signal Corps, Mr. Minow entered Northwestern University on an accelerated program for returning World War II veterans. He earned an undergraduate degree in 1949 and a law degree the next year. He was first in his law school class and clerked for Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson before joining then-Illinois Gov. Stevenson as an aide.

He was active in Stevenson’s failed presidential campaigns in 1952 and 1956, in the latter race trying unsuccessfully to persuade his boss to make then-Sen. John F. Kennedy his running mate. Mr. Minow was Stevenson’s law partner in Chicago when Kennedy tapped him to lead the FCC.

Despite the fears of broadcasters after his “vast wasteland” speech, he vigorously defended the free speech rights of TV networks and controversial programming. He denounced advertisers for threatening to cancel contracts after ABC aired an interview with Alger Hiss, who had been convicted of perjury in a Cold War espionage case.

After leaving the FCC in June 1963, Mr. Minow was an executive with Encyclopaedia Britannica and Curtis Publishing, which owned the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines. He became a partner and later senior counsel in the blue chip Chicago-based law firm Sidley Austin, developing a specialty in communications law and corporate strategy. (One of his legal proteges, future President Barack Obama, awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2016.)

He wrote or co-wrote books about broadcasting, including one on the history of televised presidential debates. Mr. Minow helped make those debates commonplace, working with the League of Women Voters in the mid-1970s to find a workaround solution to the FCC’s equal time provision.

That rule forced the inclusion of even fringe-party candidates whenever radio and TV gave exposure to a major party’s candidates. An exemption had been made in 1960 for the first televised presidential debates, between then-Sen. Kennedy and then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon.

There were no general election presidential debates for the next 16 years; the candidates had declined to participate. Viewing the debates as a matter of vital public interest — a job interview and a way “to get a feel of the personality and character of the person” — Mr. Minow helped persuade the FCC to decree that presidential debates held by outside groups such as the nonpartisan league could be interpreted as news events not subject to the equal time rule.

Mr. Minow was involved in subsequent televised debates sponsored by the league and, in 1987, helped form the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which has sponsored general election debates ever since. He served as vice chairman of the commission for more than 25 years.

He was also a past board chairman of the Carnegie Foundation of New York and the Santa Monica, Calif.-based Rand Corp., a research group heavily funded by the Defense Department. In the early 1970s, he helped steer Rand through a period of tumult after one its analysts, Daniel Ellsberg, had leaked to the New York Times the think tank’s copy of the secret Vietnam War history called the Pentagon Papers.

Mr. Minow’s wife of 72 years, the former Josephine Baskin, died in 2022. Survivors include three daughters who became lawyers, Nell Minow of McLean, Va., MacArthur Foundation board chairwoman and former Harvard Law School dean Martha Minow of Cambridge, Mass., and Mary Minow of Chicago; and three grandchildren.

In interviews, Mr. Minow liked to emphasize that he was a TV “junkie” who devoured news and sports programs, police dramas and sitcoms. He considered television a vital source of connectedness with the world, going so far as to place a TV in every room of his house — including the bathroom.

As he once said, “For people who tell me — academic intellectuals very often — ‘I don’t have a television set in my house,’ I tell them, ‘You’re not alive.’ ”

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the “post” in The Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person.” He joined The Post in 1999.

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