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Happy 96th Birthday Newton Minow!

On May 9th, 1961, my dad Newton Minow, the then-35-year-old Chairman of the FCC, made three significant appearances. In Washington, he gave his famous "vast wasteland" speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, telling them that while "when television is good, nothing is better," he expected them to do more to uphold their statutory obligation to serve "the public interest, convenience, and necessity." Then he went back to the FCC office, where he met with Elizabeth Campbell to sign the original license for WETA, the first educational television station in the nation's capital, now the producer of the Ken Burns documentaries and the nightly Newshour. And then he flew to Chicago to attend the father-daughter dinner for my Brownie troop.

Today, on his 96th birthday, I think, as I do so often, about how those three events defined his character: inspiring those around him to do better, supporting the visions of those making enriching cultural content and reliable news sources widely available, and always putting his family first. Over the next decades this has been reflected in his efforts as a founder and board chair of PBS, a member of the board of directors of CBS, and as he helped create the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), where he still serves as vice chair. He worked to require the V-chip and closed captioning, helped get the start-up funding for "Sesame Street," and argued for the rescission of the radio license of a station that broadcast virulently racist and anti-Semitic programming. And he and my mom will celebrate their 73rd wedding anniversary this spring.

Dad was awarded our nation’s highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, by Barack Obama, perhaps partly because President Obama met Michelle when he was an intern in my dad’s office and they assigned Michelle to be his supervisor. His charming story of running into them on their first date at a showing of "Do the Right Thing" is here. An honor he cherishes almost as much is inspiring the name of the S.S. Minnow on “Gilligan’s Island,” the sinking ship on the three-hour tour, intended as an insult to my dad due to his criticism of television. He and “Gilligan’s Island” creator Sherwood Schwartz later had a cordial exchange of letters. My dad is always seeking common ground. He reached out to President Trump’s FCC appointee as soon as the nomination was announced. He said, “I know we do not agree on many issues, but let’s find one we can work on together.” They co-authored an op-ed about telemedicine. 

He remains vitally involved in the issues of the day. My sister Martha, former dean of Harvard Law School, will be the first to tell you that the highlight of her recent book, Saving the News, is Dad’s introduction, which he titled, “From Guttenberg to Zuckerberg.” In it, he talks about the profound challenges changes in technology pose for the public interest and the foundations of democracy. As always, he sees the opportunities as well. He is comfortable writing about AI algorithms and deep fakes, but always in the context of the unquenchable optimism and unshakable integrity that shines through everything he does. Once, he was speaking to a group of young lawyers and told them that the most important thing was to get the client to trust them. One eager attendee raised his hand with a question. “How do we do that?” “Well,” Dad said, “You can start by being trustworthy.” Happy birthday to the world’s best dad and a true and quintessentially trustworthy American hero.

Nell Minow

Nell Minow reviews movies and DVDs each week as The Movie Mom online and on radio stations across the US. She is the author of The Movie Mom's Guide to Family Movies and 101 Must-See Movie Moments.

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