Newt Minow: Crusader for the Public Interest

Newton Minow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, testifies before the Senate Small Business Subcommittee at a hearing on communication satellites in Washington, D.C., November 9, 1961

Photo by Associated Press

Donor Profile Newt Minow

Newt Minow is an attorney and former chair of the Federal Communications Commission known for his speech referring to television as a “vast wasteland.” He came to RAND in the early 1960s looking for help with what would become one of his signature accomplishments, the development of communications satellites. He's been a part of RAND's story ever since.


Newt Minow was already one of the most recognizable names in the Kennedy administration when he first came to RAND in the early 1960s. He was the thirty-something head of the Federal Communications Commission, a crusader for the public interest. He had introduced himself to the nation's broadcast executives not long before with a speech denouncing the “vast wasteland” that television had become. The industry showed its appreciation by naming the wrecked ship on Gilligan's Island after him, the S.S. Minnow.

Minow came to RAND looking for help with what would become one of his signature accomplishments, the development of communications satellites. He's been a part of RAND's story ever since, providing nearly 60 years of leadership and support. His contributions have helped the Pardee RAND Graduate School and RAND Ventures. He's also a member of RAND's Legacy Society, having included RAND in his will.

“RAND is a very important institution,” said Minow, who still works part-time at a Chicago law firm. “It stays out of politics. It looks for the truth and uses reason and analysis to solve major problems. To me, it's a national treasure.”

Minow was a campaign staffer in the lead-up to John F. Kennedy's 1960 presidential run when he befriended the candidate's brother, Robert F. Kennedy. They were both young fathers and spoke about the influence that television had on their children. When John Kennedy won the presidency, he appointed Minow the chairman of the FCC, which regulates television and broadcasting.

A few months later, Minow delivered the speech that made him famous to a convention of the National Association of Broadcasters. He challenged them to sit through an entire day of their own programming. “What you will observe,” he said, “is a vast wasteland.” He was surprised when those were the two words that made headlines; he thought the takeaway phrase in his speech was “public interest.”

U.S. President Barack Obama awards attorney Newt Minow the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the East Room of the White House, November 22, 2016

U.S. President Barack Obama awards attorney Newt Minow the Presidential Medal of Freedom on November 22, 2016

Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters

That was Minow's focus in two years as head of the FCC. He helped open up the airwaves to UHF channels, the high numbers on the television knob. He encouraged the expansion of public television. He pushed for the first broadcast satellites, explaining to President Kennedy that he wanted to put ideas, not just men, into space.

“In the early days of television, when you only had three networks, people shared the same facts. Now they don't. That's a real danger to the country.”

“My view,” Minow said, “was that if you believe in the First Amendment, if you believe in freedom of speech, then you want to give as much choice as possible. We certainly succeeded in that.

“But what has happened is, in the early days of television, when you only had three networks, people shared the same facts. Now they don't. That's a real danger to the country. If we don't all believe in the same facts, we're in trouble.”

RAND has described that as “Truth Decay” and has made it a research focus in recent years, an effort Minow has supported with both funding and advice. Why? He points to the same two words that were supposed to be the centerpiece of his most famous speech: public interest.

“I think one of the most important things that RAND could do for the country is to find a solution to Truth Decay,” he says. Does he have any ideas? He chuckles: “I'm looking to the people at RAND to figure it out.”