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Newt Minow is an attorney and the former Federal Communications Commission Chair in the United States. He delivered a famous speech on TV being a “vast wasteland” that criticized the trend of entertainment-only programing. Minow received the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016 from President Barack Obama.

Youth and Education

Newton Norman Minow was born on January 17, 1926, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to immigrant parents.[1][2] Minow served in the U.S. Army during World War II from 1944 to 1946. He was stationed in New Dehli, India, with the 835th Signal Service Battalion in the China Burma India Theater. He married Josephine Baskin in 1949 and the couple produced three children, Mary, Martha, and Nell. The same year, Minow graduated from the Northwestern University with a Bachelor of Science. He then graduated from Northwestern University School of Law in 1950 with a Juris Doctorate. [3]

Early Legal Career

Newton N. Minow’s discussions with Robert Kennedy about television during John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign led to Minow’s appointment as the Chair of the Federal Communications Commission.

The Wisconsin and Illinois Bars admitted Newt Minow after he passed their required exams in 1950. He first worked with the large law firm, Mayer, Brown, & Platt from 1950 to 1951. From 1951 to 1952, Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson of the U.S. Supreme Court employed Newton as his law clerk. Next, he worked as Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson’s administrative assistant from 1952 to 1953, where he also served as Stevenson’s special assistant for his U.S. Presidential campaign.

In 1953, Minow returned to Mayer, Brown, & Platt and remained an employee until 1955. He left the firm to join Governor Stevenson’s law firm, Stevenson, Rifkind, & Wirtz and stayed until 1961. Minow helped Governor Stevenson’s unsuccessful 1956 presidential campaign again.

Minow met some of the Kennedy family members during Stevenson’s second campaign. In 1960, he joined John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign team. He developed a close friendship with JFK’s younger brother, Robert Kennedy.[4] Robert and Minow frequently discussed the humongous impact of television in their lives and the lives of their families, as well as the important possibilities associated with the new medium of communicating with the masses.[5][6]

The Vast Wasteland of TV Speech

John F. Kennedy succeeded in winning the U.S. Presidency over Richard Nixon with Newton Minow on his campaign team. After the win, President Kennedy appointed Minow as Chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Minow did not have much practical experience in the media industry or with communication law, but his discussions with Robert Kennedy led JFK to believe in Minow and his views on television.[7]

On May 9, 1961, Newt Minow delivered an impassioned address to the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington, D.C. now known as the “Vast Wasteland Speech.” In the speech, Minow condemns television broadcasters for failing to use “the technological knowledge that makes it possible, as our President has said, not only to destroy our world but to destroy poverty around the world.”

The most famous portion of the speech became its colloquial title as Newt Minow stated,

“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.”[8]

The Federal Communications Commission

As the head of the FCC, Minow addressed new issues like the global perception of the U.S. based on Hollywood television shows and the use of TV as an escape to ignore rather than confront the problems of Communism around the world. He received push-back from many of the industry’s executives while advocating for more informational and educational programs, instead of purely entertainment.

Newton Minow spent his time at the Federal Communications Commission working to provide more educational and informative television programming.

Minow did not draft any guidelines for programming and many critics insist he did not accomplish much, but he still managed to change some of the television content with a “raised eyebrow.” His suggestions led to the maturation of network news stations and the creation and popularizing of the network documentary.

Minow did contribute to the passing of two important pieces of television legislation during the 1960s. The 1962 All Channel Receiver Act required that any television for sale in the U.S. must be able to broadcast UHF stations along with the VHF stations that monopolized television at the time. This led to a significant increase in and a variety of television stations, even allowing ABC to reach citizens nationally and compete with CBS and NBC.

The second legislation created the Communications Satellite Corporation (Comsat) and the International Telecommunications Satellite Consortium (INTELSAT). Minow and the FCC combined different groups within the communications and electronics industries into a profit-sharing agreement to form Comsat and INTELSAT and gain a strategic advantage on the Soviet Union by using satellites.[9]

Further Career Accomplishments

Newton Minow retired from the FCC in 1963. He worked as the director, general counsel, and executive vice president of Encyclopedia Britannica between 1963 and 1965. He then joined one of the biggest communications law firms in the U.S., Sidley and Austin, located in Chicago, Illinois from 1965 until he left in 1991. He worked in communications for much of the 70s, 80s, and 90s. From 1973 to 1980, Minow was on the Board of Governors for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), and he chaired Chicago Educational TV from 1973 to 1980.

Newt Minow also worked with the Jewish Theological Seminary from 1974 to 1977 and the League of Women Voters in the late 70s. He taught at Northwestern University and was on the Board of Directors for many different companies between 1964 and 1977, including Manpower, Inc., Sara Lee Corporation, AON Corp., and Foote, Cone, & Belding Communications Inc.

Minow’s time at Sidley & Austin, LLP, introduced him to Singapore and officials from Singapore in the U.S.[10] On April 4, 2001, the Republic of Singapore appointed Minow Honorary Consul-General for Illinois citing his extensive work in communications and his status as trustee of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.[11] U.S. President Barack Obama honored Minow for his contributions to television by granting him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November 2016.[12]



Curtin, M. Minow, Newton. The Museum of Broadcast Communications - Encyclopedia of Television.[4] 
 Picture Show. (2016, August ). Newton Minow: An American Story | PBS programs. PBS.[5]


  1. Curtin, n.d.
  2. Picture Show, 2016
  3. Curtin, n.d.
  4. Curtin, n.d.
  5. Picture Show, 2016
  6. Curtin, n.d.
  7. Curtin, n.d.
  8. Minow, N. N. (1961). Television and the Public Interest. American Rhetoric.[1]
  9. Curtin, n.d.
  10. Curtin, n.d.
  11. Media Division - Singapore Government. (2001, April 4). Appointment of Singapore Honorary Consul-General in Chicago, Illinois. Singapore Government Press Release.[2]
  12. Skiba, K. (2016, November 22). Obama gives Presidential Medal of Freedom to Michael Jordan, Newton Minow. The Chicago Tribune.[3]

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