Who's Newton Minow and why you should care

Who's Newton Minow and why you should care
Newton Minow, center, with Mike Leonard and Mary Kay Wall, producers of the documentary ""Newton Minow: An American Story."

I apologize in advance for this social media braggadocio: Newton Minow proclaimed that my blog post was "thoughtful." Excuse me while I do a happy dance.

He said it in a Tribune op-ed about how Governor Bruce Rauner and rival JB Pritzker should dig into their deep pockets to help the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation.

While I was thrilled to be acknowledged and complemented by such a distinguished, inspiring man, reality soon set in when I realized many people--especially those of a certain age (younger than yours truly), don't have a clue who Newton Minow is.

That's a shame. I think everyone should know about his remarkable career. Stay right here, and you'll get an abbreviated history of the man.

Minow, who is in his 90s, is senior counsel for the law firm Sidley Austin LLP, where he was a partner from 1965–1991. 

Minow served as a law clerk to the Chief Justice of the United States, Fred M. Vinson, and worked for Governor Adlai Stevenson before being named Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission by President Kennedy in 1961.

Minow is probably most well known for the first speech he delivered as FCC Chairman at a meeting of the National Association of Broadcasters.   

He famously described television as a “vast wasteland” and boldly, stood up to broadcasters, telling them that they had a responsibility to serve the public interest. Here's a portion of that speech.

When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.

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. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

The PBS website described Minow's extraordinary achievements this way:

"Championing the public good would become the hallmark of Newt’s career, as he played an active role in enforcing equal rights protection during the civil unrest of the 1960s, expanding the diversity of television programming, paving the way for the Public Broadcasting Service and, during the height of the Cold War, putting the world’s first communications satellite into space."

Other Career Highlights

  • A Northwestern graduate, Minow is the Walter Annenberg Professor Emeritus at the University.
  • He has written four books and an array of  professional journal and magazine articles.
  • He received more than a dozen honorary degrees and numerous awards, including: American Bar Association Silver Gavel Award, Chicago Bar Association John Paul Stevens Award, Federal Communications Bar Association Lifetime Achievement Award, American Lawyer Lifetime Achievement Award. 
  • He received the Medal of Freedom in 2016  from President Obama.

An excellent documentary about Minow--"Newton Minow: An American Story," premiered on PBS in 2016 and is available here. Don't miss it. It's interesting and enlightening. But be forewarned: It will make you sad. Newton Minow is the kind of person we only wish we had in government today.

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  • I didn't know much of anything at all about Newton Minow, but I remembered "vast wasteland" as soon as I saw the name. Congratulations!

  • Congratulations, Judy. I knew him, I care, and I am delighted that he liked your Lincoln post.

  • Thanks Judy, all that and he survived the world with the name "Newton Minnow." When he called it a vast wasteland there were less than 6 channels. Now we have over 200 to add to the wasteland. Thank God though,
    we have the Kardasians and Jay Cutler wife's show. Having them available fills in the land a bit. Don't forget another fact, it's a 24 hour a day waste land.

  • Thank you for this Judy! Great post!

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