Newton N. Minow, F.C.C. Chief Who Deemed TV a ‘Vast Wasteland,’ Dies at 97

Newton N. Minow, who as President John F. Kennedy’s new F.C.C. chairman in 1961 sent shock waves through an industry and touched a nerve in a nation addicted to banality and mayhem by calling American television “a vast wasteland,” died on Saturday at his home in Chicago . He was 97.

His daughter Nell Minow said the cause was a heart attack.

On May 9, 1961, almost four months after President Kennedy called upon Americans to renew their commitment to freedom around the globe, Mr. Minow, a bespectacled bureaucrat who had recently been put in charge of the Federal Communications Commission, got up before 2,000 broadcast executives at a luncheon in Washington and invited them to watch television for a day.

“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,” Mr. Minow said. “I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.”

The audience sat aghast as he went on:

“You will see a procession of game shows, violence, audience participation 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. And endlessly, commercials — many screaming, cajoling and offending. And most of all, boredom.”

He added, “If you think I exaggerate, try it.”

To broadcasters who for years had enjoyed a cozy relationship with the F.C.C., Mr. Minow’s scorching indictment opened a troubling new era of regulatory pressures that for the first time stressed program content and public service. While the F.C.C. had no authority to tell broadcasters what to air, Mr. Minow pointedly reminded them that it did periodically renew station licenses for the use of the public airwaves, and that it had the power to revoke them for irresponsible performance.

Mr. Minow’s characterization of TV as “a vast wasteland” — a phrase inspired by T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land” — was an instant sensation, entering the American lexicon and setting off an avalanche of headlines, editorials, cartoons and letters to the editor, and a national debate over the viewing habits of adults and children.

It also transformed Mr. Minow, a 35-year-old Chicago lawyer who had campaigned for Adlai E. Stevenson and President Kennedy, into an overnight celebrity — a household name that a poll of editors by The Associated Press found to be the “top newsmaker” of 1961, ahead of Jack Paar, Gary Cooper and Elizabeth Taylor.

Mr. Minow insisted that he had not meant his remarks to the National Association of Broadcasters as a frontal attack. But in the ensuing months, his public hearings and pronouncements kept up the pressure on networks to raise the quality and diversity of programming. And for a time it worked: TV violence appeared to recede, educational offerings for children expanded slightly, the stature of network news was reinforced.

But the networks — still reeling from the payola and quiz show scandals of the 1950s — contended that they were only giving the public what it wanted, and an NBC special about Mr. Minow’s hearings appeared to bear them out. The program attracted only a small audience and was swamped by ratings for the western “Maverick” on ABC and the talking-horse sitcom “Mister Ed” on CBS.

There was also a certain vengeance — perhaps lost on audiences — when the phrase “vast wasteland” was featured years later as an answer to questions on TV game shows, like “Jeopardy!” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

Communications Pioneer

Mr. Minow served with the F.C.C. for only about two years. And in retrospect, experts say, his most important contributions probably had less to do with his famous speech than with his efforts on behalf of two laws adopted during the Kennedy administration.

One required TV sets sold in America to be equipped to receive ultra-high-frequency (UHF) signals as well as the very-high-frequency (VHF) broadcasts that predominated at the time. By the end of the 1960s, most Americans had reception on scores of channels, not just a dozen, with a wide diversity of programming, especially on independent and public stations.

Mr. Minow also pushed legislation that opened the era of satellite communications. It fostered the creation, by a consortium of interests, of the Communications Satellite Corporation (Comsat), and later the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (Intelsat), which allowed the United States to dominate satellite communications in the 1960s and ’70s, and it ultimately led to greater program diversity.

In an interview for this obituary in July 2019, Mr. Minow bemoaned the likelihood that he would be remembered for his assessment of America’s television culture rather than for his efforts on behalf of communications satellites, which he said led to the global information revolution, to digital communications and to the internet.

“I went to the White House and told President Kennedy that these communications satellites were more important than sending men into space, because they would send ideas into space and ideas last longer than people,” he said. “I testified 13 times in Congress for the legislation to create the corporations and the funding. I think this is more important than anything else I’ve ever done, for its impact on the future of the world.”

The legislation was adopted, and America’s first communications satellite went into orbit in 1962 and was soon used to transmit programs across the world. Mr. Minow’s role was detailed in “Chasing the Moon,” a 2019 book, by Alan Andres and Robert Stone, and a companion PBS-TV series marking the 50th anniversary of the first manned lunar landing in 1969.

Mr. Minow resigned from the F.C.C. in 1963 to become an executive with Encyclopaedia Britannica. Two years later he joined a Chicago law firm that merged in 1972 with Sidley Austin, one of the world’s largest practices. Mr. Minow was a partner until 1991 and then became senior counsel. In 1988, he recruited Barack Obama to work as a summer associate at the firm, where Mr. Obama met his future wife, Michelle Robinson.

In the decades that followed his F.C.C. tenure, Mr. Minow wrote books and articles, lectured widely and continued to campaign for programming reforms. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Public Broadcasting System were founded, educational programming for children and adults was greatly expanded, and network news grew from adolescence to maturity, with a new emphasis on documentaries.

Mr. Minow also played important roles in the development of the nation’s televised presidential debates, which began in 1960 with a confrontation between Mr. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. Mr. Minow and Mr. Stevenson, a former Illinois governor and presidential candidate, helped persuade Congress that year to exempt presidential debates from the F.C.C.’s equal-time rule, so that broadcasters could cover them without having to include marginal candidates.

Without congressional exemptions, there were no debates in 1964, 1968 and 1972. But the F.C.C. later changed its rules to provide exemptions, and Mr. Newton helped the League of Women Voters revive the debates.

He was co-chairman of the 1976 and 1980 debates and later served on the board of the Commission on Presidential Debates, the bipartisan nonprofit group that has organized them since 1988. With Craig L. LaMay, he wrote “Inside the Presidential Debates: Their Improbable Past and Promising Future” (2008).

In the 2020 election campaign, President Donald J. Trump scuttled a second debate with his Democratic opponent, Joseph R. Biden, by abruptly announcing that he would not participate in a virtual face-off ordered by the Commission on Presidential Debates because of concerns over the spreading coronavirus. It was the first time any candidate had pulled out of a scheduled presidential debate.

Mr. Minow called Mr. Trump’s withdrawal “a big loss to the democratic process,” adding, “American voters are the losers — deprived of the opportunity to see, hear and evaluate presidential candidates through today’s technology.”

Mr. Trump said the debate commission was “trying to protect Biden” and repeatedly sought to undermine its integrity. Without evidence, he accused the scheduled moderator, Steve Scully, of being a “never Trumper” and said the moderator of the first debate, Chris Wallace of Fox News, “was a disaster” who favored Mr. Biden.

A Biden spokeswoman said: “Donald Trump doesn’t make the debate schedule. The debate commission does.”

In 2016, President Obama awarded Mr. Minow the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in a ceremony at the White House.

Newton Norman Minow was born in Milwaukee on Jan. 17, 1926, the son of Jay A. Minow, who owned a chain of laundries, and Doris (Stein) Minow. He attended public schools in Milwaukee, enlisted in the Army in World War II and, after earning a certificate in engineering at the University of Michigan as part of an Army training program, helped lay the first telephone line connecting India and China. He mustered out in 1946 as a sergeant.

In 1949, he married Josephine Baskin. The couple had three daughters.

Besides his daughter Nell, Mr. Minow is survived by his other daughters, Martha and Mary Minow, and three grandchildren. His wife died last year.

Mr. Minow graduated from Northwestern University in 1949 with a bachelor’s degree in speech and political science, and a year later he received a law degree at Northwestern, where he was editor of the law review and first in his class academically.

After a year with a Chicago law firm, he became law clerk to Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson of the United States Supreme Court. He then joined Governor Stevenson as an aide and worked on his unsuccessful presidential campaigns in 1952 and 1956 against Dwight D. Eisenhower. He also got to know Robert F. Kennedy, with whom he discussed the effects of television on children.

He joined the Kennedy presidential bandwagon early, and after the 1960 election he eagerly sought the $20,500-a-year F.C.C. chairmanship — an appointment some observers considered inappropriate given his limited experience with the media and communications law.

Mr. Minow recalled years later that when he told Mr. Stevenson, who had been passed over for secretary of state, that the Kennedy transition team had him in mind for the F.C.C. job the former governor said: “Oh, you must have misunderstood. You’re only 34 years old. They’re not going to ask you to be chairman of the F.C.C.” But they did.

A Sitcom’s Rebuke

While his campaign against television violence and mediocrity was widely applauded, it was also criticized by powerful television executives as an unconstitutional government attempt to interfere with private enterprise, and by others as an elitist attack on entertainment enjoyed by millions of viewers. The sitcom “Gilligan’s Island,” (1964-67) offered a rebuke of sorts: The boat that sank, leaving its passengers stranded, was named the S.S. Minnow.

Mr. Minow’s books on programming, presidential debates and other subjects included “Abandoned in the Wasteland: Children, Television and the First Amendment,” (1995), written with Mr. LaMay, which urged broadcasters, parents, advertisers and legislators to elevate children’s programming.

He was on the board of the Public Broadcasting Service and its predecessor, National Educational Television, from 1973 to 1980, and was chairman from 1978 to 1980. He helped fund the influential PBS series “Sesame Street.”

Nearly a half-century after a speech that had become among the most widely quoted of an era, Mr. Minow was still being asked about it, and he still insisted the press had misconstrued his intent.

“The reaction was astonishing to me,” he recalled in a 2003 article for the Federal Communications Law Journal. “Particularly astonishing was the importance the press placed upon two words — vast wasteland — which I didn’t think were that important. But somehow that stuck in the public mind. I had two different words in mind: public interest.”

In 2011, Mr. Minow wrote an article for The Atlantic, “A Vaster Wasteland,” in which he hailed the “sizzling and explosive advances in technology” that had transformed communications. But he berated television again for failing America’s children and politics, sounding every inch the war horse of old.

“For 50 years, we have bombarded our children with commercials disguised as programs and with endless displays of violence and sexual exploitation,” he declared. “We are nearly alone in the democratic world in not providing our candidates with public-service television time. Instead, we make them buy it — and so money consumes and corrupts our political discourse.”

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