Remembering Henry Geller
Monday, April 13, 2020
Remembering Henry Geller
On April 7, 2020, Henry Geller passed away. Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1924, he was raised in Detroit, Michigan. During a long career in communications policy, he worked at the Federal Communications Commission, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and Duke University’s Washington Center for Public Policy Research. His life's work had a profound effect on U.S. telecommunications; his impact on so many advocates and policymakers is impossible to measure. Here three Benton Institute for Broadband & Society experts share their memories.
A Trip with Benton Senior Counselor Andrew Jay Schwartzman
Henry was a powerful and influential voice for the public interest within the government for nearly three decades and then for the public interest community itself for almost four more decades. He balanced his passion for policy with a passion for pleasures like golf, skiing and the best chocolate. One early morning, I flew to Chicago with him to appear on a panel. While I had planned to take advantage of the trip to schedule several days of meetings, Henry told me he was flying back to D.C. later the same day. I asked if this panel discussion was so important to justify the trip, he said: “No, I’m doing it for the pizza.” Indeed, he went to one of his favorite pizza places for lunch and then proceeded directly back to Washington.
It is hard to overstate the influence that Henry had over two generations of media and telecommunications policy, but to focus on the policy work is perhaps to overlook what may have been his greatest accomplishment, which was as the wise and gentle teacher and mentor of two generations of communications lawyers who looked to him as a model of how to do the right thing, the right way.
A Memory from Benton Senior Fellow Jonathan Sallet
When I was general counsel of the FCC, I was invited to have lunch with Henry and Judy Geller at their apartment in Northwest D.C. He was in his 90s and he was having trouble hearing, but he was vigorous and sharp as a nail. Beyond the hospitality and the kindness, I remember two things. First, he was still an advocate — pressing me on what more the FCC could do. He had aged, but he had not mellowed in his belief that the Commission should be a force for good. Second, he knew how to tell a story, reveling in the recollection that he had urged then-Chairman Newton Minow to remove from a speech about television the most memorable phrase an FCC Chairman uttered: “the vast wasteland” — and how he had turned out to be momentously wrong. Even then, Mr. Geller could laugh at himself and he could bring all the force of his intellect, leaning across the table towards me, to advancing the public interest. That’s a moment I will remember and a legacy that we should all remember.
An Appreciation by Benton Senior Fellow and Public Advocate Gigi Sohn
I first met Henry Geller soon after joining the public interest communications law firm Media Access Project (MAP) in 1988. I was introduced to him by Andy Schwartzman, who was then MAP’s Executive Director and my boss. I didn’t know at the time that Henry was a legend in the communications bar – a longtime Federal Communications Commission staffer who rose to General Counsel and then the first Administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in the Carter Administration.
I knew Henry only as the leader of a dynamic duo of public interest lawyers who wrote untold numbers of FCC filings and court briefs in the 1980s and early 1990s. Henry Geller and Donna Lampert were involved in every major communications policy issue of the time, including the Fairness Doctrine, children’s television, media ownership concentration, and cable regulation. As a young lawyer, I would read their briefs in awe. Brilliantly written and argued, their advocacy was creative and passionate.
When Henry would talk in his scratchy, high-pitched voice, you would best listen carefully, because you never knew when he would come up with a new idea for a petition or a lawsuit, which, of course, you were going to be a part of. He often talked at a level that a mere mortal like me had trouble understanding, but when he put his thoughts into words, it was magical.
In the mid-1990s, Henry’s conception of the public interest in communications began to diverge from mine. For example, he advocated for the FCC to be run by one administrator rather than five commissioners and that broadcasters be relieved of their public interest obligations in exchange for a 2% spectrum fee that would go to public broadcasting to do public interest programming. I know that this change of heart came from years of watching the agency he joined as a young lawyer become less of a steward of the public interest and more of an enabler of big media, cable and telecommunications companies. While I might not have agreed with Henry’s change of heart, I certainly respected it.
I last saw Henry about a year ago. We had coffee at Bread Furst, a bakery in the neighborhood we shared. At age 95, he had just stopped playing tennis, a sport that he played with the likes of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Henry was never one to make small talk – so he asked me if I had any ideas on how we might get Congress to mandate disclosure for online political ads. And once again, I was in awe of Henry Geller, public interest lawyer to the very end.
Rest in peace, Henry.
The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.
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