Charles and the Rainbow
There was a wonderful and inspiring event in Washington, DC last week. It was a celebration to honor the life of Charles Benton who passed away six months ago. This was just one of numerous events across the land that have paid tribute to the remarkable life of this truly extraordinary individual, but it was as impressive an event as any I have attended during my 45 years in the nation’s capital. In addition to family, attendees included public interest movers and shakers and government officials who worked with Charles in one capacity or another over the course of his incredibly distinguished career.
Those who knew Charles knew no one who worked so hard, thought so creatively, and made so many friends in the process of working toward the goals to which he was so passionately dedicated. His causes included a wide gamut of public policy, communications (of course), schools, libraries, literacy, museums, encyclopedias, film, philanthropy, the arts and art collection, and a list of civic causes too long even to list here. So often we don’t realize how richly diverse one’s life has been, nor do we understand the range of contributions he or she has made, until that person has left us and we gather at events like the one last week.
At the Washington event, Adrianne Furniss—Charles and Marjorie Craig Benton’s daughter who has been working at the helm of the Benton Foundation alongside her father in recent years—delivered a deeply personal, loving, and often humorous remembrance of Charles. Richard Somerset-Ward, formerly of the BBC and a former Fellow at the Benton Foundation, presided and contributed fond memories of his long-time friendship with Charles. Attorney Joanne Hovis, past President of the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors and a member of the Benton board, shared her memories of working with Charles, and she highlighted the many creative ways he led the board and the foundation. Gigi Sohn, a legend in the public interest community for years and currently senior counselor to Chairman Tom Wheeler of the Federal Communications Commission, recreated some of the many battles she and Charles fought together, and she painted a colorful picture of their experiences as members of President Bill Clinton’s Advisory Committee on the Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters—aka the Gore Commission, because the Vice President presided over it.
I also had the opportunity to speak, which was a very special privilege for me. My beat was, and is, communications. And I believe Charles saw communications as the primary mission of his public life, too.
The first thing I noted in my remarks was how brilliantly Charles communicated communications! The facts always at his command, knowing just what he wanted to say, the gracious and often eloquent way he said it, the smile on his face, the twinkle in his eye, the courtly demeanor, how intently he listened as well as talked, and that uncanny ability to create new ideas and strategies on the spot from the conversations he was having.
What made his communications skills so awesome was what underlay them. Call it commitment, passion, zeal, whatever. To me it all came down to his unequaled dedication to the public interest. He loved that term; I love that term. Public interest was in his bones, his brain, and his great big heart. He felt it, he breathed it, he lived it. He came to see me all those years at the FCC (I can still see him trudging down the hallway trailing his cart and briefcase, filled to the brim with things he wanted me to read and study and do something about). We worked together in many other venues across the country, too, because he was trying to help people— all people, no matter who they were, where they lived, or the particular circumstances of their individual lives. He knew that communications were revolutionizing the way we lived, and he understood that without access to the tools of the new communications ecosystem, people couldn’t get ahead, and the country couldn’t get ahead either.
He taught me to see this universal access as a civil right, because in the broadband Internet world, this is the route to finding jobs, building careers, educating ourselves and our kids and grandkids, caring for our health, and so much more. He successfully championed the schools and libraries E-rate program so that every child would have an equal shot at participating in the American Dream and every community could have anchor broadband facilities, and he advocated for a Lifeline subsidy program for the nation’s needy to open the doors of opportunity more widely. He pushed for community broadband, both in Illinois and across the nation, so cities and towns could build their own networks in places where there was no service or, almost as bad, where there was no competition because of the market power of monopoly providers. Charles believed that citizens without access to these essential 21st century tools are consigned to second-class citizenship. And we agreed that too many Americans have endured too many generations of second-class citizenship.
I am so happy that Charles lived to see the Federal Communications Commission adopt rules earlier this year for network neutrality on the Internet. Up until the end, Charles was in the thick of this important battle. As so much of our civic dialogue moves online, he appreciated that democracy could tolerate no gate-keeping, no fast lanes for the favored few and slow lanes for the many, no blocking of content or innovation. We need an Internet for everyone because democracy depends upon everyone being informed with real news and information, so we can have a productive civic dialogue and be able to make good decisions for the future of our troubled country. Charles knew deep inside that communications were key to citizens being able to master the challenges of self-government.
So we worried, my friend and me, about the state of American democracy today. How long can we successfully practice the art of self-government given the thin gruel of the media diet portioned out to us every day—infotainment instead of real news, shouted opinion in place of fact-based investigative journalism, reality-show politics that generate clouds of smoke but precious little light, homogenized music and entertainment that undercut the great cultural tapestry that is America, media that fail abysmally to reflect the diversity of America’s races and ethnic groups and that fail to produce meaningful numbers of good jobs or adequate ownership opportunities for minorities and women?
Charles was among the first to understand the grave threat leveled at our modern democracy by telecommunications and media giants that fail to serve the common good. He was spot-on—but our nation has yet to grasp the magnitude of this threat. One reason, of course, is the gate-keeping control of a communications industry that more often than not puts its own self-interest ahead of its responsibilities to the public interest. Another reason is journalism that has been down-sized and depopulated to such an extent that it no longer has the capacity to cover the important beats that a free people must have covered. The kind of coverage of which I write is no democratic luxury; it is a democratic imperative. Lose it over the course of time and we will lose our democracy, too.
Yet Charles was never a doom-sayer; he was an optimist. He believed this nation could rise to its challenges and implement good communications policies that brought the tools of twenty-first century opportunity to every American and that provided every citizen with the news and information required for intelligent decision-making and informed voting. He had deep faith in the American people, and he knew that informed and participating citizens can still beat the special interests—even in today’s world where big money wields such outlandish influence. His life was a testament to an abiding faith that democracy can still prevail. Why else would he have devoted such energy and passion to the cause?
The good news is that his work goes on. Marjorie Craig Benton, the love of his life for more than 60 years of marriage and a force of nature in her own right, is deeply committed to making this happen. Their daughter, Adrianne, has established herself as a powerful force for the public interest. And the able and agile Benton Foundation team carries on, producing research, analysis, and reports, including Benton's Headlines, that are “must reading” every morning for anyone involved in communications issues.
The battles for an Open Internet and for media that truly reflect democratic values are nowhere near completed. Indeed, the steepest climbs lay ahead. Yes, we have made good progress on net neutrality, community broadband, and even stopping one or two of those awful industry mega-mergers. But developing an Internet that is truly Open and truly serving the public interest; getting high-speed, low-cost broadband into every home and hearth; encouraging media that doesn’t work so often at cross purposes with democracy—this work is nowhere near achievement. What Charles wanted most is for this work to continue—and for it to prevail. We will honor him best by making that happen.
The morning after the celebration for Charles I received a message from my friend Jerry Udwin, who told me that as he walked out of the event, he saw a “long, beautiful rainbow” that he thought connected Charles to the gathering we had just attended. I think he was right.