Media Figures Get Their Presidential Medals

Some important media figures were among the 2016 Media of Freedom honorees saluted by President Barack Obama at a White House ceremony. The President called it a "particulary impressive class," saying they were all people who had "helped make me who I am." He also said what made the country great was people like them.

He called them all "extraordinary Americans who had lifted our spirits, strengthened our union, and pushed us toward progress." The medal is the highest civilian honor the nation bestows.

One of the people who helped make the President a husband and father was Newton Minow, the former FCC chair who famously called TV "a vast wasteland," but who also introduced Obama to Michelle when both were working for his law firm. Obama made that point explicitly, saying Minow's impact on him had been particularly personal.

Of Minow, Obama said: "Every media critic knows the phrase Newt Minow coined, 'the vast wasteland. But the two words Newt prefers we remember from his speech to the nation's broadcasters [at a National Association of Broadcasters convention in 1961] is 'public interest.' That has been the heartbeat of his life's work."

The President cited his work at the Presidential Debate Commission and launching the first communications satellites, "making nationwide broadcasting and GPS and cell phones possible."

He also said the "as far as he knew, Minow was also the only honoree who had been on his first date with Michelle. "So he has also been vital to my personal interests."

The President paused a moment for a word with Minow after placing the medal around his neck, the affection between them obvious, though Obama was the Hugger-in Chief throughout the ceremony.

The citation for the award said Minow's career had been defined by devotion to others, including trying to "assure that broadcast media educates and provides opportunity for all, challenging the media to better serve their viewers, his staunch commitment to the power of ideas and information has transformed telecommunications and its influential role in our society."

Also among the honorees was Saturday Night Live executive producer Lorne Michaels and syndicated talk show host, comedian, and LGBT icon Ellen DeGeneres.

The President said DeGeneres had a way of making people laugh "about something rather than at someone...except when I danced on her show."

The President said it was easy to forget now that there is equality under the law how much courage it took for DeGeneres to "come out" on one of the most public stages almost 20 years ago. He said it was important not just for the LGBT community, but for everyone "to see somebody so full of kindness and light, someone we like so much, somebody who could be our neighbor or our colleague or our sister, challenge our own assumptions."

He said she had "pushed our country in the direction of justice" at the risk of her own career and have "the hopes of millions on your shoulders," then added: "But it's like Ellen says, we all want a tortilla chip that can support the weight of guacamole, which really makes no sense to me, but I thought it would break the mooed because I was getting kind of choked up.

So was DeGeneres, who had to brush away tears as she sat back down next to honoree Robert De Niro, who hugged her and briefly missed his cue to stand.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.