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

“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).

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