Newt Minow was not the most famous Chicagoan who received a Presidential Medal of Freedom on November 22—it’s hard to be more famous than Michael Jordan—but he has certainly left his impact on both his city, his country, and, especially, the lives of Barack and Michelle Obama.
In the summer of 1988, Minow was a senior partner in the Chicago law firm of Sidley Austin when he entrusted Michelle Robinson, a second-year associate, with the task of mentoring a Harvard Law School student named Barack Obama. It was Minow’s daughter, Martha Minow, then a professor at the school and now its dean, who had encouraged him to recruit the young Obama as a summer associate.
At the White House ceremony, Obama noted that Minow and his wife, Jo, were the only people in the room who had been present at his and Michelle’s first date: the two couples had run into each other at a showing of “Do the Right Thing” at the Water Tower Place movie theater.
But of course, this was not the only reason Obama honored Minow. By the time he met the Obamas, he’d already had a long and distinguished career.
Minow was born in Milwaukee in January of 1926, in the same hospital as Abner Mikva, the future Chicago congressman and federal judge who would become his lifelong friend and another prominent figure in Chicago’s social and political history. He attended Northwestern University and, after serving in the India-Burma theater in World War II, worked as a law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Fred Vinson and as an assistant counsel to Illinois Governor Adlai E. Stevenson.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed him chairman of the Federal Communications Commission; at the time, Minow famously declared television “a vast wasteland.” (In response, Sherwood Schwartz named the boat on his new show Gilligan’s Island the S.S. Minnow.) During his time as FCC chair, Minow attempted to increase the diversity of television programming by pushing legislation that mandated that all TV sets be able to pick up UHF signals as well as VHF. He also created the Communications Satellite Corporation, which became a pioneer of satellite communications.
In his White House speech describing each of the honorees Obama said of Minow: “When Newt helped launch the first communications satellites, making nationwide broadcasts possible—and eventually GPS possible and cellphones possible—he predicted it would be more important than the moon landing. ‘This will launch ideas into space,’ he said, ‘and ideas last longer than people.’”
After he left the FCC and joined Sidley Austin, Minow continued his work in television, serving on the board governors of PBS and helping to form the Commission on Presidential Debates. He also participated in a slew of civic and charitable endeavors in Chicago. His three daughters have followed in his footsteps and become lawyers: in addition to Martha, Nell is a shareholder advocate and movie critic, and Mary is a law library expert who served in the Obama administration.
Minow, who continues to take an interest in public affairs, told Chicago Sun-Times columnist Lynn Sweet that he was particularly concerned by the proliferation of fake internet news. “I think nobody knows how you reconcile the First Amendment with the public interest,” he said. “This is a great dilemma that I think the next decade will have to figure out.”