Newton N. Minow, 88, senior counsel at Sidley, Austin LLP, at his office last month. The former chairman of the FCC has spent more than 40 years in the firm’s Chicago office while helping to organize presidential debates and serving as a sounding board for major Democratic political candidates.
Newton N. Minow, 88, senior counsel at Sidley, Austin LLP, at his office last month. The former chairman of the FCC has spent more than 40 years in the firm’s Chicago office while helping to organize presidential debates and serving as a sounding board for major Democratic political candidates. — Chandler West

If Newton N. Minow had his way, it would be known as “the public interest speech.”

That’s not what anyone today calls it, however. To Minow’s surprise, that speech — and his career — would eventually be most famous for two words out of 5,400: vast wasteland.

“I certainly didn’t think that the two words ‘vast wasteland’ had any significance beyond the day,” Minow said in his office at Sidley, Austin LLP.

“That was a total surprise to me.”

On May 9, 1961, Minow was in Washington, D.C., sharing his vision of the future of television with the National Association of Broadcasters, his first speech to them as the newly minted 35-year-old chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

His goal was to encourage broadcasters to expand the public’s television viewing options while, hopefully, creating programming that would educate children.

In the speech, he quoted the definition of “public interest” provided by the president of the NAB — former Florida Gov. LeRoy Collins — who was in attendance that day:

“Broadcasting to serve the public interest must have a soul and a conscience, a burning desire to excel as well as to sell, the urge to build the character, citizenship and intellectual stature of people, as well as to expand the gross national product.”

The word “children” shows up in Minow’s speech 10 times. “Public interest” is there 15, including in its title: “Television and the Public Interest.”

Contrary to the persistent myth, Minow was not and is not some kind of TV bogeyman.

“I am in Washington to help broadcasting, not to harm it,” he said that day, later adding that “when television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.”

Instead, the words “vast wasteland” have followed him for 53 years. They create the impression of a stodgy naysayer who has no more use for television than does a goldfish.

» You can listen to the speech here.

To his friends and family, though, Minow is the ultimate TV booster. And fan.

“I’m a television junkie,” he says with regularity, and indeed, he is known among loved ones as the man who owns more TVs than anyone else.

At Sidley, he has a flat-screen visible from his desk. At the FCC in the 1960s, he had a panel with three screens so he could watch NBC, ABC and CBS simultaneously. He and his wife Josephine (or Jo, as she’s known) have a TV in every room of the house — including the bathroom.

To Minow, TV is of vital importance.

“I think radio and television are basically educational mediums,” he said. “The question is, what are you learning?”

Newton Minow

A historic viewing party

Minow learned both the value of education and the importance of public service from his family. Born in 1926 to Russian immigrants, education was the path to assimilation and success, while public service was the responsibility born from education.

His desire for public interest — at its core, the act of helping others — stemmed in part from his older brother, a boy born with Moebius syndrome, a neurological condition that limits facial movement and impacts the cranial nerves.

“I think that had a huge influence on my dad, in terms of empathy,” said Nell, the oldest of Minow’s three daughters. “There was a lot of bigotry toward disabled people in that era. It gave him a lot of humility about his own health.”

Growing up in Milwaukee, Minow was a boy of great enthusiasm, friends say.

“He was exuberant,” said childhood friend Abner J. Mikva, who developed his own storied career as a member of Congress and federal judge. “He was 16 years old and full of beans.”

One year after graduating from high school, Minow was an enlisted man in the Army. He was strongly impacted by his experience in World War II, where he worked with a unit responsible for building the first TV line connecting India and China.

“I was deeply influenced by the idea of how important democracy was, how important the United States was in the world,” he said. “It affected my desire to do some public service at some point in my life.”

His time in the military came with another great lesson — the power of visual broadcasting.

“The minute I saw television for the first time, I thought it was the most important invention since the nuclear bomb,” he said.

That experience came after the war. But he was exposed to the power of broadcasting during the war as a soldier in India.

The Army often showed movies at night, setting up screens in the woods. One time after a film, when the trucks turned their lights on, Minow saw hundreds of Indians on the fringes of the screening, some of them in trees, watching the movie.

“I realized then,” he said, “how powerful any audio-visual means was for education, for entertainment, for instruction, for anything.”

Newton Minow

Family first

In the Minow household, television was to be appreciated and respected but not overused.

With rare exception, the Minows did not allow their daughters — Nell, Martha and Mary — to watch TV on school nights. If they did, it was special viewing of high importance done as a family.

“If they thought a show was worth our seeing, we would sit down and watch them together,” said Nell, who did not see popular standards of the day such as “Star Trek” or “Bonanza” until she was in college.

“I was aggrieved at times that I could not watch some of the shows that my friends at school watched, but I was also extremely interested in the shows that my parents thought were important.”

Those shows included “Rocky & Bullwinkle,” which the Minows thought was not necessarily educational but intelligent, as well as National Education Television, a precursor to PBS.

Martha recalls spending Saturday nights with her family watching “whatever was on PBS.” Later, they would watch the presidential debates together, which Minow helped and still helps mold.

“Some families watch sports together,” Martha tells her daughters today, passing on the habits her parents gave her. “We watch politics together.”

The Minow household was its own political roundtable. At nightly family dinners, Newt and Jo would give each child three minutes to tell the family about their day. The girls would talk about the usual things: homework, school, friends.

Then Newt and Jo would talk.

“It was enthralling to hear how they thought about their day,” Nell said. “The stories were not ‘The fancy person I met.’ It was always about ‘This is a problem that exists in the world, and this is how we’re working to make progress on it.’”

All three daughters became lawyers and developed their own distinguished careers — Nell as a film critic, Martha as dean of Harvard Law School and Mary as an authority on library law.

“It was a very inspiring way to grow up,” Nell said. “It makes you think about what you can do.”

The Minow girls had, as Martha said, “a ringside seat to history.” Growing up, they met Eleanor Roosevelt, Bob Hope, Robert F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy and President John F. Kennedy, who appointed Minow to the FCC.

But to Minow, the four most important people in the world were the ones he lived with and shared meals with every day.

Recently, Jo found a note Minow had written her in 1961 on FCC stationary, inquiring about the date and time of Nell’s Brownie father-daughter dinner.

“I have a speech to give to the National Association of Broadcasters,” he wrote, “and I want to make sure I’m (at Nell’s event).”

That speech turned out to be the “vast wasteland speech.” Since the family had not yet moved to Washington — the girls were finishing the school year — Minow was in D.C. by himself.

Nell was 9 years old at the time.

“After he finished the vast wasteland speech ... he got on a plane and came back to Chicago and took me to my Brownie father-daughter dinner, then went back to Washington and went to work,” she said.

Minow has a simple explanation for his actions: “Family comes first.”

Newton Minow

History lessons

A visit to Minow’s Sidley office is a trip through history.

The walls are adorned with photos of presidents, members of Congress, judges and other newsmakers.

He has a family photo with John F. Kennedy taken on the president’s last birthday — May 29, 1963 — and another family photo taken in the Oval Office with President Barack Obama, who Minow has known since Obama worked as a summer associate at Sidley in 1989.

Even when he’s not pursuing history, he’s stumbling upon it. That summer in 1989, he and his wife went to see the Spike Lee film “Do the Right Thing.” They saw Obama and now-first lady Michelle — then a Sidley associate — on their first date.

Still, Martha says her parents were always just as interested in non-famous people as they were celebrities. Minow has photos of him with both, so a tour of his office leads to quotes like, “That’s Desmond, who works in the lobby downstairs. He’s in charge of the elevators. … And this is my friend Ken Burns. He’s got an absolutely brilliant new series this fall about the Roosevelts.”

Minow raves about Sidley, his firm since 1972 after it merged with his previous firm, Liebman, Williams, Bennett, Baird & Minow. He credits Sidley for enabling him “to meet and work with many outstanding lawyers (and) to serve many more diverse clients.”

He also cherishes the time he spent at Northwestern University, where he earned both his bachelor’s degree and his J.D. He credits his legal education for his FCC job.

“The main value (of law school) is teaching you how to think,” he said. “How to analyze and break down complicated issues so you can analyze and systematically think the problem through.”

While that skill helped him as an attorney in both general litigation early in his career and in building his knowledge of communications law and corporate governance, it also makes him something of a general adviser.

“He’s basically a counselor in the old-fashioned sense,” said longtime Sidley colleague Howard J. Trienens. “He’s very good with people — figuring out what their problem is and how to solve it.”

Those people have included Gov. Adlai Stevenson II, whom Minow told not to run for president in 1956 (he did); then-Sen. John Kennedy, whom Minow advised to run for vice president in 1960 (he ran for president instead) and then-Sen. Obama, who came to Minow and Mikva late in 2006 to assuage Obama’s concerns about running for president while raising a family.

In one sense, Minow’s presidential influence will end after 2016. He has served on the Commission on Presidential Debates since 1976. The next election will be his last, he says; he will be 90, a good stopping point.

But his interest in the future rolls on. He cherishes new technology, particularly in communication. He’s a fan of “Law & Order,” “The Sopranos” and sports programming.

He has added an iPhone and iPad to his modes of news gathering, and he’s fascinated by YouTube, which he says has “changed everything” by bringing TV to the Internet, the prelude to a future where “broadcasting and computers will marry each other.”

And if the Internet is also starting to feel like a vast wasteland, Minow is encouraged by the fact that it provides choice, his goal all along.

That choice — over the airwaves and online — is the difference in Minow’s eyes between TV in 2014 and the medium in 1961.

“You can turn to a different channel,” he said. “Then, you couldn’t. You had 2½ channels. Some cities had one channel. Now you’ve got dozens. Hundreds. That’s the difference.”