On May 9, 1961, Newton Minow, the chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, achieved instant immortality when, in a speech before the National Association of Broadcasters, he referred to the offerings of American television as a “vast wasteland.”
Newton N. Minow, born January 17, 1926, was a young, Jewish attorney who had campaigned for John F. Kennedy when the latter ran for president in 1960. When Kennedy won, he appointed Minow - who had been educated at Northwestern University, clerked at the U.S. Supreme Court, and then worked with Adlai Stevenson both when he was governor of Illinois and during his two runs for U.S. president - to serve as head of the FCC.
Minow’s May 9 speech, officially titled “Television and the Public Interest,” was his first major public address after assuming the role of FCC chair. He intended it to encourage broadcasters to use “the most powerful voice in America” for the public good, to rely less on ratings and instead to exploit their potential to “to teach, to inform, to uplift, to stretch, to enlarge the capacities of our children” and for adults, to “communicate ideas as well as relaxation.”
It was two other words that Minow employed, however, that made his talk especially newsworthy, and that continued to make people cite the speech regularly, more than half a century later: “vast wasteland.”
Minow has freely acknowledged that the phrase was suggested to him by a friend, journalist John Bartlow Martin, who had watched 20 hours of television nonstop for a series of articles he was writing for the Saturday Evening Post, and concluded that it was a “vast wasteland of junk.” Minow later said that he had received four drafts of the speech from four different writers, and that Martin’s, which included the phrase, was “the best one by far.” It was Minow who decided to drop the words “of junk.”
In his talk before the executives responsible for the content of that “vast wasteland,” Minow encouraged them to look objectively at the menu of programming they were offering the public.
Much of what they produced was praiseworthy, he declared. 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.”
Reaction to Minow’s comments was mixed. In an article he wrote for the Atlantic on the talk’s 50th anniversary, in 2011, Minow, a good-humored man, said that his favorite response came from the Hollywood TV producer Sherwood Schwartz, who named the broken-down boat in the sitcom “Gilligan’s Island” for the FCC chairman, although spelling it the same way as the little fish, the S.S. Minnow. In the same article, Minow noted that his three daughters “threaten to engrave on my tombstone: 'On To A Vaster Wasteland.'"
Newton Minow resigned from the FCC and returned to private legal practice after two years, but not before seeing to the passage of two sets of legislation that were formative for American television. The first was the All Channel Receiver Act of 1962, which required that all new television sets sold in the United States have the capacity to receive UHF signals as well as VHF ones, a step that greatly increased the number of stations available to viewers. The other legislation allowed for the creation of the communications satellite industry.
Today, at age 87, Newton Minow remains a senior counsel in the Chicago office of the law firm Sidley Austin, which has a large telecommunications practice, and the honorary counsel of Singapore in his city. Over the years, he served as chairman of the Rand Corporation, president of the Carnegie Corporation, and, in the 1970s, as chairman of the board of overseers of the Jewish Theological Seminary. He also was the first Jewish member of the board of the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana.
Minow’s three daughters – Nell, Martha and Mary – are all attorneys; Martha is currently dean of Harvard University Law School. In 2008, shortly before the election of Barack Obama, Minow told a reporter at the Chicago Jewish News that it was Martha who had called him in 1988, “to tell me that the best student she ever had wanted to spend the summer in Chicago, and she wanted me to meet him.” When she told her father the law student’s name, Barack Obama, “I said, ‘you gotta spell that.’” But when Minow asked a partner at Sidley Austin to check out the promising prospect during a recruiting visit to Harvard for summer interns, “he said, ‘we hired him already.’”
It was at Sidley Austin that Barack Obama met his future wife, Michelle Robinson.