Newton Norman "Newt" Minow (born January 17, 1926) is an American attorney and former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission. His speech referring to television as a "vast wasteland" is cited even as the speech has passed its 55th anniversary. While still maintaining a law practice, Minow is currently the Honorary Consul General of Singapore in Chicago.
Minow has been active in Democratic party politics. He is an influential attorney in private practice concerning telecommunications law and is active in many nonprofit, civic, and educational institutions. Barack Obama named him a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom for 2016.
Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1926, Minow served in World War II from 1944 to 1946 and attained the rank of a sergeant in the U.S. Army. He served in the China Burma India Theater with the 835th Signal Service Battalion headquartered in New Delhi, India. After the war, he received a Bachelor of Science degree in 1949 from Northwestern University and a Juris Doctor degree in 1950 from Northwestern University School of Law. It was possible in the period after the war for law students who had not completed college to be granted a bachelor's degree after a certain period of study in law school.
After graduating from law school, Minow worked for the law firm of Mayer, Brown & Platt (1950–1951 and 1953–1955) before becoming a law clerk to Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson of the U.S. Supreme Court (1951–1952). He later became assistant counsel to Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson (1952–1953), worked for Stevenson's two presidential campaigns (1952 and 1956), and then was a partner in the law firm, Stevenson, Rifkind & Wirtz (1955–1961). Minow campaigned for President John F. Kennedy prior to the 1960 presidential election. In 1961 he was appointed by President Kennedy to be one of seven commissioners of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as well as its chair.
Reportedly, Robert F. Kennedy and Minow frequently talked at length about the increasing importance of television in the lives of their children during the presidential campaign of Robert's brother John. Thereafter, it 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. He served as chairman from March 2, 1961 through June 1, 1963.
Minow became one of the most well known and respected — if sometimes controversial — political figures of the early 1960s because of his criticism of commercial television. In a speech given to the National Association of Broadcasters convention on May 9, 1961, he was extremely critical of television broadcasters for not doing more, in Minow's view, to serve the public interest. His phrase, "vast wasteland", is remembered years after the speech after he said,
When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better. 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.