Minow, Newton Norman

views updated

MINOW, Newton Norman

(b. 17 January 1926 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin), attorney and Democratic Party activist appointed by President John F. Kennedy as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC); inextricably linked to the 1960s as the person who called television "a vast wasteland."

Minow, son of Jay A. Minow, who operated a profitable chain of laundries, and Doris Stein Minow, grew up and attended public schools in Milwaukee. During World War II he enlisted in the U.S. Army and earned a certificate in engineering at the University of Michigan as part of the army's specialized training program. Later he served with the Signal Corps and helped string the first telephone line connecting India and China. He attained the rank of sergeant and was honorably discharged in 1946.

Minow married Josephine Baskin in 1949, the same year he received his B.S. degree in speech and political science from Northwestern University. The couple had three daughters. In 1950 Minow was awarded his J.D. from Northwestern University Law School. The following year he was appointed law clerk to Fred M. Vinson, then chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Minow's public career began in 1952 as an administrative aide to Adlai Stevenson, then governor of Illinois. He became an important member of the governor's staff and a key figure in Stevenson's presidential campaigns in 1952 and 1956. In 1960 he worked for John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign.

Appointed chairman of the FCC in 1960 at age thirty-four , Minow quickly sent shock waves through the broadcast industry with his agenda for television reform. On 9 May 1961, in his first address to the National Association of Broadcasters, the bespectacled, slightly pudgy bureaucrat declared, "If you want to stay on as trustees, you must deliver a decent return to the public—not only to your stockholders." The chairman invited those in his audience to watch their own television stations for one full day. "I can assure you," he warned, "that you will observe a vast wasteland."

To the broadcast community, this speech ushered in a troubling new era of strict regulation with a controversial emphasis on program content. In the popular press, though, the coverage of the "Vast Wasteland" speech was widespread and favorable. The phrase vast wasteland, inspired by the T. S. Eliot poem The Waste Land, entered the nation's lexicon, and Minow became a celebrity. Never before or since has an FCC chairman been a household name.

The Associated Press's annual poll of editors voted Minow the Top Newsmaker of 1961 in the field of entertainment (the runners-up were Jack Paar, Gary Cooper, and Elizabeth Taylor). Political cartoonists capitalized on the chairman's unusual name and easily caricatured looks. Minow cartoons were not limited to the editorial pages. The proof positive of his ascension to celebrity was that the comic sections of newspapers frequently carried cartoons that used his name or cause in their gag lines.

Minow sparked a national debate over the public-service responsibilities of the television industry. His two years on the FCC created unrelenting headaches for broadcasters, who had grown accustomed to a cozy relationship with the regulatory agency during the Eisenhower administration. During Minow's tenure the proverbial rubber stamp used in the past for FCC renewal applications was replaced with a fine-tooth comb.

Even though the broadcast industry resented Minow's stance, the result of the regulatory pressure was noticeable change. At the same time that the trade press and various industry leaders were attempting to prove that the FCC's new ardor was inherently wrong—in fact unconstitutional—television programming was being adjusted to meet new standards. Attempts at appeasement to ward off government regulation were conspicuous. Violence receded on prime-time programming, educational offerings for children increased, and Minow's influence made it easier for the network news divisions to rise in stature.

Despite his high visibility in matters related to program content, Minow's most significant contributions to U.S. broadcasting produced little public sensation. He championed the All Channel Receiver Bill (enacted 1962), which required all television sets to be capable of receiving ultrahigh frequency (UHF) stations and changed the landscape for independent and public television stations in the following decade. Minow pushed for legislation to aid educational television and supported the formation of the Communications Satellite Corporation, or COMSAT (enacted 1962), which ultimately led to greater choice and program diversity.

Minow resigned from the FCC in May 1963 and became executive vice president, director, and general counsel for the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The following year the creators of the television show Gilligan's Island tweaked the legacy of the former chairman by naming the castaways' ill-fated chartered vessel the Minnow. In 1965 Minow began a long partnership with the Chicago law firm Sidley and Austin.

In the decades after the "Vast Wasteland" speech, issues of mass media continued to be the focus of Minow's interest. From 1973 until 1980 he was a director on the Board of the Public Broadcasting Service, including a stint as chair from 1978 to 1980. Minow was also a trustee of Chicago Educational TV from 1964 to 1991 and retains the title of life trustee. In 1976 and 1980 he served as cochair of the televised presidential debates sponsored by the League of Women Voters. In 1987 Minow was named a professor of communications law and policy in the Annenberg Program at Northwestern University and has directed the Annenberg Washington Program Communications Policy Studies since that time.

True to the idealism of the "New Frontier," a term used to describe the adventurous and uplifting philosophy of the Kennedy administration, Minow always believed that doing well and doing good are not irreconcilable. His goading of the broadcast industry for its lack of social conscience never faltered. In 1995, with coauthor Craig Lamay, Minow wrote Abandoned in the Wasteland: Children, Television, and the First Amendment. The book urges broadcasters, parents, advertisers, and lawmakers to work together in a commitment to the education of children in the United States.

On the fortieth anniversary of the "Vast Wasteland" speech, Minow reflected on the longevity of his characterization of television: "I wanted the best remembered words to be 'public interest.' I paid very little attention to 'vast wasteland.' I was astonished people picked up on those two words.… But 'vast wasteland' struck a nerve."

Some have mistakenly interpreted Minow's 1961 speech to be a broad-based denunciation of television, when, in fact, what he articulated to the U.S. public was a hopeful vision of what television could become. The public interest has been the constant and unifying theme of Minow's career, which always embraced the classic liberalism that flourished in the United States in the early 1960s.

Minow's papers, including his FCC files, are housed at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. His tenure on the commission is examined in Mary Ann Watson, The Expanding Vista: American Television in the Kennedy Years (1990). Contemporaneous news accounts of the "Vast Wasteland" speech were abundant in the trade press, notably Broadcasting magazine and Variety, including "Black Tuesday at the NAB Convention," Broadcasting (15 May 1961). Stephanie B. Goldberg, "The Warrior and the Wasteland," Chicago Tribune Magazine (29 Oct. 1995), is a detailed retrospective on Minow's life and career.

Mary Ann Watson