"To my way of thinking, that speech was badly misinterpreted. It didn't condemn all of television. It said there are great things in television which are unique in uniting and serving the country, but you, the broadcasters, have got to remember that you are trustees for all of us. That you have got to pay more attention to your obligations to children. You've got to pay more attention to not only the bottom line, but to public service."
About This Interview
In his three-hour Archive interview, Newton Minow discusses how he began his legal career as a law clerk to Chief Justice Fred Vinson. He describes how he went on to become a partner with Adlai Stevenson and helped in his presidential campaigns. He then talks about how, in 1961, President Kennedy tapped him to become the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. During his interview, Minow discusses at length the impact of his first speech as FCC chairman where he referred to television as a "vast wasteland." He describes the impact of his criticisms and his relationship to the Kennedy presidency. He also speaks about his championing of public television and satellite communications. He also discusses how, after two years, he left the FCC and returned to private practice where he continues today. Chuck Olin conducted the interview in Chicago, IL on July 21, 1999.
Newton Minow was one of the most controversial figures ever to chair the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Appointed in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, Minow served only two years, but during that time he stimulated more public debate over television programming than any other chair in the history of the commission.
Trained at Northwestern Law School, Minow's public career began with his involvement in the administration of Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson during the 1950s. At a very young age Minow became a leading figure both on the governor's staff and in his presidential campaigns of 1952 and 1956. During the latter, Minow became acquainted with members of the Kennedy circle and in 1960 worked for the Kennedy presidential bid, becoming close friends with the President's brother, Robert. Reportedly, the two men frequently talked at length about the increasing importance of television in the lives of their children. It therefore came as little surprise that after the election Minow eagerly pursued the position of FCC Chair. Some observers nevertheless considered it unusual given his lack of experience with the media industry and with communication law.
Appointed chair at the age of 34, Minow lost little time mapping out his agenda for television reform. In his first public speech at the national convention of broadcasting executives, Minow challenged industry leaders to "sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit-and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you--and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland." Sharply critical of excessive violence, frivolity, and commercialism, Minow's remarks sparked a national debate over the future of television. Although similar criticisms about television and popular culture had circulated widely during the late 1950s, Minow became the first chair of the FCC to specifically challenge the content of television programming and to urge significant reform. His characterization of the medium as a "vast wasteland" quickly became ubiquitous, especially in newsprint headlines and cartoons. During his two years in office, it was estimated that, other than the president, Minow generated more column-inches of news coverage than any other federal official.
In part, Minow's criticisms of television were linked to broader anxieties about consumerism, child-rearing, and suburban living. Many social critics during this period worried that middle-class Americans had "gone soft" and lost their connection to public life. In an inaugural address that focused exclusively on foreign policy, President Kennedy implored Americans to revive their commitment to the urgent struggle for freedom around the globe. Shortly thereafter, Newton Minow framed his critique of television along similar lines, arguing that the medium had become a form of escapism that threatened the nation's ability to meet the challenge of global Communism. Moreover, he worried about the increasing export of Hollywood programming overseas and the impact it would have on perceptions of the United States among citizens in other countries. In the months following the speech, Minow advocated the diversification of programming with particular emphasis on educational and informational fare. Confronted by powerful opposition among industry executives, he nevertheless continued to chide network programmers in speeches, interviews, and public appearances.
Although the Minow FCC never drafted specific programming guidelines, some argued that Minow employed a form of "regulation by raised eyebrow," which helped to stimulate the production of programs favored by the FCC. Indeed, during the early 1960s, network news grew from adolescence to maturity and many credit Minow for helping to foster its growth. He especially was seen as a champion network documentary, a genre of programming that placed particular emphasis on educating the public about Cold War issues. Many critics nevertheless contend that beyond news, little changed in primetime television during the Minow years and some suggested that, overall, the Minow FCC enjoyed few tangible policy accomplishments.
While that may have been true in the short run, the FCC chair played a leading role in the passage of two pieces of legislation that would have important long-term effects. The first was the All Channel Receiver Act of the 1962, which required that all television sets sold in the U.S. be capable of picking up UHF stations in addition to the VHF stations that then dominated the medium. By the end of the 1960s, this law significantly increased the number of television stations, and allowed the ABC network to achieve national coverage, making it truly competitive with NBC and CBS.
Secondly, Minow crafted the passage of legislation that ushered in the era of satellite communications. Under his leadership, various factions within the electronics and communications industries agreed to a pie-sharing arrangement that resulted in the organization of the Communications Satellite Corporation (Comsat) and ultimately the International Telecommunications Satellite Consortium (INTELSAT). Created with an eye toward attaining a strategic advantage over the Soviet Union, these U.S.-controlled organizations dominated the arena of satellite communications throughout the 1960s and much of the 1970s.
Shortly after the passage of these key pieces of legislation, Minow resigned from the FCC and returned to a lucrative private practice, later becoming a partner in one of the most powerful communications law firms in the United States: Sidley and Austin. Through the late 1990s, he remains an influential figure both in the media industry and in policy circles.
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NEWTON (NORMAN) MINOW. Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.A., 17 January 1926. Northwestern University, B.S. 1949; J.D. 1950. Married: Josephine Baskin, 1949; children: Nell, Martha and Mary. Served in U.S. Army, 1944-46. Admitted to Wisconsin Bar, 1950; Illinois Bar, 1950; with firm of Mayer, Brown & Platt, Chicago, 1950-51 and 1953-55; law clerk to chief justice Fred M. Vinson, 1951-52; administrative assistant to Illinois governor Stevenson, 1952-53; special assistant to Adlai Stevenson in U.S. presidential campaigns, 1952, 1956; partner in firm of Stevenson, Rifkind & Wirtz, Chicago, New York City and Washington, D.C., 1955-61; chair, the Federal Communication Commission, 1961-63; executive vice president, general counsel and director, Encyclopedia Britannica, Chicago, 1963-65; partner, Sidley and Austin, Chicago, 1965-91; of counsel from 1991; board of governors, Public Broadcasting Service, 1973-80; chairman of the board, 1978-80; past chair, Chicago Educational TV, currently honorary chairman; chair, publications review board, Arthur Andersen & Co., 1974-83; chair of the board of overseers, Jewish Theological Seminary, 1974-77; co-chair, presidential debates League of Women Voters, 1976, 1980; professor of communications policy and law, Annenberg Program, Northwestern University, from 1987. Board of directors, Foote, Cone & Belding Communications Inc.; Tribune Co.; Sara Lee Corp.; AON Corp.; Manpower, Inc. Trustee, Notre Dame University, 1964-77, from 1983; Mayo Foundation, 1973-81; trustee, past chair of board, Rand Corporation; Chicago Orchestral Association, 1975-87, life trustee from 1987; trustee, Northwestern University, 1975-87, life trustee, from 1987. Honorary degrees: LL.D., University of Wisconsin, and Brandeis University, 1963; Honorary LL.D., Northwestern University, 1965; Honorary LL.D., Columbia College, 1972; Northwestern University Alumni Association Medal, 1978; Ralph Lowell Award, 1982; Honorary LL.D., Governors State University, 1984; Honorary LL.D., DePaul University, 1989; Honorary LL.D., RAND Graduate School. Member: Fellow, American Bar Foundation; American Academy of Arts and Sciences; American Bar Association; Illinois Bar Association; Chicago Bar Association. Recipient: Peabody Broadcasting Award, 1961; Nortwestern Udniversity Alumni Association Medal, 1978; Ralph Lowell Award, 1982. Address: Sidley & Austin, 1 First National Plaza, Chicago, IL 60603.
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