“I felt that television, in my view the greatest invention of our time, was being wasted, that we were not taking advantage of the opportunity to not only entertain, but also to inform, to educate and to inspire,” says Newton Minow, a chairman of the Federal Communications Commission during the John F. Kennedy administration, on The Hollywood Reporter‘s Awards Chatter podcast as we discuss what provoked the famous “vast wasteland” speech that he delivered to the National Association of Broadcasters on May 9, 1961.
Minow was the second-youngest FCC chair ever, just 34, and only two months into his new job when he addressed 2,000 broadcasters who had not faced much regulation during the prior years of TV’s existence. The public airwaves had been entrusted to broadcasters to serve the public interest, but had become overrun with what he described in his speech as “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,” not to mention endless commercials — in short, as he put it, and as was quoted in a headline on the front page of the following day’s New York Times, a “vast wasteland.”
Six decades later, Minow — the recipient of a special Peabody Award in 1961 and the Presidential Media of Freedom in 2016, who is now 94 and residing in Chicago with his wife of 71 years, Jo — remembers, “I was determined to change things and to tell the broadcasters that there was a new sheriff in town.”
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Minow was born in Milwaukee, Wis., to Ukrainian immigrants, and grew up during the Great Depression. While still in his teens, he served the U.S. Army in World War II, helping to install the first telephone line connecting India and China. After the war, he returned stateside and became the first member of his family to receive higher education, becoming valedictorian at Northwestern and editor of the law review at Northwestern Law School. His impressive academic resume led to a highly-coveted clerkship with Fred Vinson, the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, and later to the role of assistant counsel to Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson.
During Stevenson’s unsuccessful 1952 and 1956 presidential campaigns against Dwight Eisenhower, Minow got his first taste of politics — and got to know the Kennedy family. On the 1956 campaign, he bonded with Robert F. Kennedy, who was the same age and a fellow young father, not least over a shared sense of concern about how TV was impacting their children and could be improved upon. Four years later, when John F. Kennedy was elected president, Minow was asked to join the administration, but, being a partner at a top law firm and needing to provide for his young family, said he would only consider the FCC chairmanship, which he was promptly offered.
The “vast wasteland” speech set the tone for Minow’s entire two-plus years at the FCC. “Most of [the broadcasters] were hostile,” he says, “but the public was quite the contrary — the FCC got more supporting letters than at any other time in its history.” (One of Minow’s detractors was TV creator Sherwood Schwartz, who, with incorrect spelling, named after him the ship that sunk in Gilligan’s Island, the SS Minnow.) And, sure enough, TV got better, with longer newscasts, more children’s programs and the beginnings of what would grow into the Public Broadcasting System, or PBS (which he would later chair).
Minow also guided through Congress three major pieces of legislation. The All-Channel Receiver Act (1961) mandated UHF reception capability for all TV receivers sold in the US; by requiring a UHF tuner as well as a VHF tuner on all TV sets, it paved the way for many more channels, and also led to smaller and less expensive micro chips, which inadvertently made possible the era of personal computing. The Educational Television Facilities Act (1962) financed the development of public TV stations across America. And the Communications Satellite Act (1962) is responsible for not only cable and satellite TV, but, indirectly, for GPS and cell phones.
In June 1963, feeling the financial strain of supporting a wife and three children on a government salary, Minow resigned from the FCC and returned to the Chicago law firm for which he had worked before entering public service — but his service to the public was far from over. To cite but two of many examples from the ensuing years, he was instrumental in the creation of Sesame Street; and he has served on — and, at times, co-chaired — the presidential debate commissions that have organized every televised presidential debate since, right through the upcoming Trump-Biden matchups.
He also repeatedly found himself in the middle of other history-making moments, from chairing the board of the not-for-profit think tank the RAND Corporation in 1971 when RAND employee Daniel Ellsberg released what came to be known as “the Pentagon Papers,” to assigning a 1988 summer associate at his law firm, Harvard Law School student Barack Obama, to work under the supervision of another employee at the firm, Michelle Robinson, who would later become, you guessed it, Michelle Obama.
60 years after his time at the FCC, in the era of Donald Trump and Fox News, how does Minow feel about the impact of his work? “What we tried to do was expand choice, to give the viewer more than two-and-a-half networks,” he says. “We certainly succeeded at that. We expanded choice. At the same time, I think we, as a civilization, pay a great price for that. We now don’t agree on what the facts are. Sen. [Daniel Patrick] Moynihan once said, ‘This is a free country. Everybody is entitled to their own opinion. But nobody is entitled to their own facts.’ We now seem to have a country — including people who are broadcasters and cable people and so on — who say that we can have ‘alternative facts’.” He continues, “We have to get back to a point where we agree on ‘this is true’ or ‘this is not true’.”