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Northwestern alum to receive Presidential Medal of Freedom

Newton N. Minow was originator of the televised U.S. presidential debates

Newton Minow
Newton N. Minow

Northwestern University alumnus Newton N. Minow, originator of the televised U.S. presidential debates, will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, the White House announced yesterday.

President Barack Obama named 21 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is given to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural and other significant public or private endeavors.

Minow was appointed by President John F. Kennedy to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the early 1960s and drafted legislation that expanded the broadcast spectrum and promoted the implementation of communication satellite technology.

In 1961, while serving as FCC chairman, Minow referred to television as a “vast wasteland” in a landmark speech still remembered today.

Minow also served as law clerk to the Hon. Fred M. Vinson, chief justice of the United States; assistant counsel to Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson; and chairman and director of the Public Broadcasting Service. He also co-chaired the 1976 and 1980 U.S. presidential debates. He was a partner at Sidley Austin from 1965 to 1991. 

Currently the Walter Annenberg Professor Emeritus at Northwestern, Minow earned both his bachelor’s degree (1949) and his J.D. (1950) from Northwestern. He joined the Northwestern University Board of Trustees in 1975 and became a Life Trustee in 1987. 

In 2014, the University announced gifts totaling $4 million to establish an endowment for a new named professorship at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law in honor of Minow. The gifts also established the Newton N. Minow Debates at the Law School, the first of which were held in November 2015.

The endowment was funded by a consortium of Minow’s personal friends, fellow Northwestern alumni and colleagues at Sidley Austin where Minow is senior counsel.  

“The Presidential Medal of Freedom is not just our nation’s highest civilian honor – it’s a tribute to the idea that all of us, no matter where we come from, have the opportunity to change this country for the better,” said President Obama. “From scientists, philanthropists and public servants to activists, athletes and artists, these 21 individuals have helped push America forward, inspiring millions of people around the world along the way.”

Fellow recipients this year are: Bill and Melinda Gates, Tom Hanks, Frank Gehry, Robert De Niro, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Maya Lin, Michael Jordan, Admiral Grace Hopper, Robert Redford, Bruce Springsteen, Ellen DeGeneres, Diana Ross, Cicely Tyson, Vin Scully, Eduardo Padrón, Margaret H. Hamilton, Richard Garwin, Elouise Cobell and Lorne Michaels.

The awards will be presented at the White House on Nov. 22 and will be streamed live on the White House's website.