'A remarkable man': Ex-FCC chief, Barack Obama mentor Newton Minow dies at 97 in Chicago home

Newton Minow remembered for public TV advocacy

Karen Jordan Image
Sunday, May 7, 2023
Ex-FCC chief, public TV advocate Newton Minow dies at 97 in Chicago
Minow gave a young Barack Obama a summer job at his law firm. Obama awarded Minow the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Newton Minow died Saturday at 97 years old in his Chicago home, surrounded by loved ones, according to his daughter, Nell Minow.

He is being remembered for his legacy as an advocate for public television and as a mentor to former President Barack Obama.

Minow, as the chair of the Federal Communications Commission in the early 1960s, famously proclaimed that network television was a "vast wasteland." He was appointed as FCC chief by President John F. Kennedy in 1961.

In a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, Minow challenged TV executives to watch a full day of their own programming, saying they would observe that "vast wasteland." That speech caused a sensation.

Though Minow remained in the FCC post just two years, he left a permanent stamp on the broadcasting industry through government steps to foster satellite communications, the passage of a law mandating UHF reception on TV sets and his outspoken advocacy for quality in television.

In 1965, Minow returned to his law practice in Chicago, and later served as board member at PBS, CBS Inc. and the advertising company Foote Cone & Belding Communications, Inc. He was director of the Annenberg Washington Program in Communications Policy Studies of Northwestern University.

He also gave Obama a summer job at the law firm, where the future president met his wife, Michelle. Minow also was one of Obama's earliest supporters when the then-Illinois senator considered running for president, Nell Minow said.

"I know that he didn't intend to be remembered for saying TV is a 'vast wasteland,'" said Teresa Wilton Harmon, managing partner at Sidley Austin LLP. "Instead, he was focused on TV being a public service."

Sidley Austin LLP is the Chicago firm where Minow practiced law for more than 50 years. He held a variety of leadership roles there.

Harmon said Minow went into the office well into his 90s.

"Newt Minow was a remarkable man," Harmon said. "He did a lot for the country and for the world, for democracy, for communication, for education."

Obama awarded Minow the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.

"Never has journalism been more important," Minow once said. "Our democracy is at risk unless journalists inform the American public."

As chairman of the PBS, Minow helped gain federal funding to launch the show "Sesame Street," and in later years, he helped organize the Commission on Presidential Debates.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.