Essay Mark Lloyd Remembrance

Newton Minow and the Public Interest

By Mark Lloyd / Original to ScheerPost

Newton N. Minow, President John F. Kennedy’s first appointed Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), died May 6, 2023.  If one “herald” of the public interest movement in communication policy could be named, it would be Minow.

Minow was a young lawyer who joined Robert Kennedy in the presidential campaign for Adlai Stevenson and later campaigned for John Kennedy.  He had no experience in the communication industry, but was impressed with the potential benefits and dangers of television’s impact on children.  He lobbied his friends in the Kennedy administration and was granted the responsibility of leading the FCC in 1961. 

The FCC has been under formal investigation by Congress or the threat of investigation every year since its creation in 1934, but it was in particularly bad repute when Minow took over.  In the late 1950s, the broadcast industry was rocked with scandal: from the practice of DJ’s at radio stations accepting money to play certain records, called “payola”; to TV quiz show producers secretly helping some contestants while leading the viewing public to believe that these game shows were fair; to the acceptance of gifts and vacation trips by FCC commissioners who were responsible for doling out the lucrative new TV licenses.    

The slings and arrows aimed at the FCC came not only from Congress, but from the industries the FCC was created to regulate, and they came from the public, left and right.  According Walter B. Emery, all the men who preceded Minow as Chairman were “clobbered unmercifully … one died in office, three succumbed shortly after leaving the job … two suffered serious health impairment as a result of the experience.”  Leading the FCC was not for the faint of heart.

But Newt Minow dove in  . . . heart first.

It may also come as a surprise to some of you, but I want you to know that you have my admiration and my respect. Yours is a most honorable profession. Anyone who is in the broadcasting business has a tough row to hoe. You earn your bread by using public property. When you work in broadcasting you volunteer for public service, public pressure, and public regulation.

Minow spoke these words to the National Association of Broadcasters, Washington, DC on May 9, 1961.  Just a few months after his Senate confirmation.  But it was the later parts of his speech that would really cause the broadcasters surprise:  

I did not come to Washington to idly observe the squandering of the public’s airwaves.

I understand that many people feel that in the past licenses were often renewed pro forma. I say to you now: renewal will not be pro forma in the future. There is nothing permanent or sacred about a broadcast license….

I intend to find out whether the people care. I intend to find out whether the community which each broadcaster serves believes he has been serving the public interest. When a renewal is set down for a hearing, I intend, whenever possible, to hold a well-advertised public hearing, right in the community you have promised to serve. I want the people who own the air and the homes that television enters to tell you and the FCC what’s been going on.

Minow’s speech has been mischaracterized by many, including the New York Times, as a speech about “Americans’ viewing habits.” It was not really a speech about the vast wasteland of TV in the 1960s.    

Minow was challenging the commercial broadcasters’ neglect of an obligation to operate in the public interest in exchange for the free use of public property: the airwaves.  He would be on the job for only two years, but in that short period of time he made good on his promise to “find out if people care.”  He was the most visible member of the Kennedy Administration, except for President Kennedy himself.  According to a poll of editors by The Associated Press, Newton was a “top newsmaker” of 1961 in entertainment, ahead of Jack Paar and Elizabeth Taylor.  He traveled the country encouraging the public to speak up about whether they were being well-served by their local broadcaster. 

Minow’s critique of broadcasting, and his encouragement of the captains of the broadcast industry to sit down in front of their television screens to witness the vast wasteland they were providing to the American public was not very different than Edward R. Murrow’s speech before the Radio Television News Directors Association in 1958.  Minow, however, led a federal agency with the power to revoke a broadcast license.  Minow had power but reached out to the public, not the courts, to wield that power.

Minow never backtracked on his critique of broadcasters, and never gave up hope that they could and should do better to earn their free access to the public airwaves.  His 1996 book, Abandoned in the Wasteland and his 2003 law review article “Revisiting the Vast Wasteland,” attest to his enduring commitment and engagement to advance the public interest. 

I met Newt Minow in 2000, as the U.S. was preparing to auction licenses to use the airwaves to telecommunications companies (broadcasters still get free access to the public airwaves). He and Larry K. Grossman were embarking on an effort to make sure the money raised in these auctions would benefit the public, and they asked me to write a chapter in their book. They proposed using the expected $18 billion from these auctions to create a digital opportunities investment trust (DOIT), modeled after the National Science Foundation.  They proposed empowering DOIT to commission grants and contracts to encourage an informed citizenry and spur innovation in digital technology in the public interest. 

Given both Minow’s and Grossman’s devotion to the possibility of public broadcasting, it is no surprise that DOIT would also have included support for a reformed and reimagined digital public service media in the U.S.  

Needless to say, the commercial broadcasters and the infant digital industries were not in favor, and little notice was given (or has yet to be given) to the billions raised auctioning licenses to the telecom industry to use the public airwaves. 

There has been no FCC Chairman to command the attention of the public, rivaling a late night talk show host or glamorous movie star, since Newt Minow.  The FCC is now even less effective than it was in the 1960s at advancing the public interest, now deadlocked because the Biden nominee, Gigi Sohn, has been blocked by tactics of distortion and vilification even worse than that endured by Newt Minow.

But Minow would remain optimistic about the possibility of creating media policy in the public interest ‘til the end.  He would insist: “If you’re going to have a free society, you have to have an informed electorate; I think that’s the public interest.”

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Mark Lloyd

Mark Lloyd is a communication lawyer and a journalist. From 2009-2012 he served as an associate general counsel at the Federal Communications Commission, advising the Commission on how to promote diverse participation in the communications field with a focus on research into critical information needs and broadband adoption by low-income populations. He now teaches at McGill University.

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