Celebrating 20 Years at the Benton Foundation
“Welcome to the Benton vortex,” a colleague said to me 20 years ago today and, noticing how startled I appeared added, “Don’t get me wrong; it’s a very nice vortex.”
That’s how it started for me, a nervous man of 29 – new to DC, a couple of weeks away from being married, just out of Northwestern University’s graduate program and in my first “real” job or, for sure, the first job in what I hoped to be a career.
Telecommunications policy, of course, was a hot topic in August 1995. The Telecommunications Act was still being debated and tweaked daily, it seemed. And we were all wondering how the Internet would impact communications.
Not because of my anniversary, but because of the passing of our founder, Charles Benton, this spring, we’ve all been a bit reflective the past few months. Lately I’ve recalled my first encounter with Charles who, for me in those days, was not “the boss” but my boss’ boss’ boss. At a DC reception, Charles spotted Andrew Blau, the policy director that hired me on, and started to inquire, in a not-soft voice, “Andrew, who wrote this memo? Who wrote this memo?” I noticed he was holding a brief that I, in fact, had written. Andrew did a half turn and said, “Well, Charles, the author is right here. Let me introduce you to our new associate, Kevin Taglang.” I was like a deer in headlights, sure that what I had written must have enraged Charles – why else was he yelling at this party? “Fabulous! Absolutely fabulous,” Charles bellowed – and then launched into the finer points of the brief and two or three changes he had (he was a great editor).
This year, I’ve been thinking back to realize that Charles was in his mid-60s when first we met; the age when most are thinking of retiring. And I appreciate all the more how much we got done together in the next twenty years because Charles was not the retiring type.
Many people know me not by face or voice but as a line that shows up in their In Box each morning with news about changes in media and communications policy. In 1996, my colleague Susan Goslee and I began what you may know as Headlines because the traditional clipping service new associates like us used to provide our bosses didn’t work for Andrew Blau who wanted everything on his computer, if possible. Nearly 20 years later, Headlines is the daily monster I still feed – with help now from our writing associate, Robbie McBeath – to an ever-growing, loyal audience. And Headlines, in turn, has helped us track telecommunications legislation, media mergers, and the National Broadband Plan over the years.
I worked very closely with Charles when he served on President Clinton’s Advisory Committee on the Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters. As a junior policy wonk, staffing Charles on the committee opened my eyes to both the possibility and limits of working with groups with disparate interests – and, if you knew Charles, you know he also taught me the value of building relationships in order to have honest exchanges of ideas and goals. Every meal for Charles, it seemed, was an opportunity to get to know someone better.
Charles and I also worked closely when he served on the Federal Communications Commission’s Consumer Advisory Committee. Charles was tireless in both getting the committee to add consumers’ voices to the hottest debates at the time – be they about digital television or media ownership – but also in getting the FCC to be more responsive to the committee’s recommendations.
I’ve noted to a few people recently that although I was the young kid and Charles was the stately chairman of the board, it was his energy, optimism and tenacity that drove our work. I was the one reminding him it was not possible to bend time and space to fit in another meeting before the flight back to Chicago.
I write today really not to reminisce, but to take the opportunity to say thank you. My first real job did turn into a career. And the Benton Foundation has been flexible over the years, allowing me to return to Chicago and, for many years, be at home to raise my kids (yes, the marriage turned out to be long-term as well). Thanks for letting me never stray too far away from the Benton vortex.
And, as Charles would say, enough with the navel gazing – let’s get back to work.