A Big Minow in a Big Pond

I often mention here my friend Nell Minow, who I first met as a kid growing up in Glencoe, Illinois. And we later on had a class together in radio production (appropriately) at Northwestern University, before she transferred to go to college with her high school sweetheart, David Apatoff -- who I actually knew better than Nell, since he lived down the street from us (Nell was on the other side town, although was a pretty small town) -- and to whom she is still married. My dad and her father were also friends and played poker, and in fact my dad was his physician.

But this isn't about Nell, but rather where she came from, which goes a long way to explaining who she is (among other things, as I've noted, a lawyer and world expert on corporate governance, who has testified before Congress, and often is ask to write op-eds and be a guest on TV news -- as well as a national movie critic, and author of numerous books on the subject).

She comes from good stock. Her sister Martha is the dean of Harvard Law School, who once recommended one of her especially-bright student's to her father's law firm in Chicago, a fellow named Barack Obama. Her sister Mary is a lawyer, too, and an expert in library science. Her -- their -- mother, Jo, was born Jo Baskin. If the name only sounds vaguely familiar, that's because it's usually seen hyphenated with the name of their corporate partner, as"Baskin-Robbins."

But specifically, this is about her father, Newton Minow.

There's a point to all this. Bear with me. Because getting this is almost as good a journey.

Newton Minow was the Chairman of the FCC under President Kennedy. He not only is the most famous chairman of the FCC -- he's may likely be the only member of the FCC in U.S. history who most people can even name. And that 50 years after he served That's because of his memorable speech to the National Association of Broadcasters on May 9, 1961, when he described television as a "vast wasteland."

Going straight into the lions dean and speaking directly to the ballroom full of broadcasters, he said --

I have confidence in your health. But not in your product. I am here to uphold and protect the public interest. What do we mean by "the public interest?" Some say the public interest is merely what interests the public. I disagree.

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 you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you--and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.

You will see a procession of game shows, violence, audience-participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western badmen, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence and cartoons. And, endlessly, commercials--many screaming, cajoling and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you will see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, try it.

One of my favorite passages in this speech came a few sentences later. For any TV executive who might have had their disbelieving nose bent out of joint, Minow added -- "Is there one network president in this room who claims he can't do better? Well, is there at least one network president who believes that the other networks can't do better?"

Not surprisingly, broadcasters weren't happy to be told off, though as Newton Minow later told one executive who said that he was such a nice guy but why was he always criticizing them, "I don't work for you. I work for the viewers."

In fact, it was one particularly-annoyed television executive in the production end who help Newton Minow gain another measure of notoriety. In an effect to ridicule the FCC Chairman, when Sherwood Schwartz created his new television series, Gilligan's Island, he named the boat that the show's castaways would get stranded from, the S.S. Minnow. (Yes, that's where the name comes from!) I suspect that the effort at insult backfired, since most viewers tend to think of that little beach-wrecked craft, which managed to bring its passengers to safety in a terrible storm, with a certain fondness.

I bring all this up because a month ago (I'm a bit belated in getting to this...), the notable PBS station in Chicago, WTTW, celebrated its 60th birthday, and at their gala celebration named Newton Minow their guest of honor. And to commemorate him further, they produced an hour-long documentary on the good fellow, which aired on Wednesday.

It's absolutely wonderful. Even if it hadn't been about Nell's dad (and someone I knew, who gave me a couple of treasured gifts I still have, of campaign songs from the Stevenson and Kennedy presidential runs, on which he worked) it was beautifully produced, and was the kind of biography I most like, where it's as much a history of the person's times as it is about the person.

And it's quite a history. It covers Newton Minow's involvement through the FCC with the Civil Rights movement, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the first communications satellite, and technology which ultimately led to the development of the personal computer -- not to mention the first presidential debate, between Kennedy and Nixon. And the creation of what became public television. And much more.

It covers, too, stories of his path crossing with Eleanor Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson, John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and, of course, Barack Obama. Oh, and Michelle Robinson, a young lawyer who worked at his Chicago law firm, as well, where she and President Obama first met. Not to mention a hilarious story that concerns dealing with Lord Mountbatten during WWII.

I have a link to the full broadcast below, from Mike Leonard at WTTW, and I highly recommend it. This is not dry and dull "talking heads" in the slightest, but lively and fascinating. Really terrific history. Sometimes even funny. And it's made all the more entertaining by lots of reminisces by the whole family. Including of course my friend Nell -- she's the one in the pink sweater and scarf, who laughs a lot. And she gets to tell one of my absolute favorite (and long) stories about a business encounter she had with her dad, that weaves together corporate shareholder governance and family lessons.

Don't be put off by the odd, albeit lively Irish jig background music at the start. It's only during the opening sequence. After that, things settle down. Do yourself a favor and find the time to watch, even if it's in segments.

Newton Minow: An American Story:


To read more from Robert J. Elisberg about this or many other matters both large and tidbit small, see Elisberg Industries.