Time to Reflect: An End-of-Year Message from Charles Benton

Time to Reflect

We are coming to the close of 2012 with heavy hearts. The senseless violence that ended the lives of 20 young children and 8 adults, including six heroic teachers and administrators in Newtown, Connecticut concerns all of us. As Americans, we all lost some innocence on that fateful day.

2012 – A Year of Highs and Lows
Personally and professionally, this year has been one for the books. In September, the United Church of Christ, Office of Communications, Inc., honored me with the Everett C. Parker Award in recognition of what they described as my “many years of leadership and support for promoting the public interest in traditional and digital media.” This recognition has special meaning for me, as Rev Parker truly is both a personal hero and an inspiration to all of us who fight for a just, democratic society. The Benton Foundation and our colleagues in the public interest community are all guided by the spirit of Rev. Parker as we work to ensure that everyone is able to enjoy the benefits made possible by 21st century telecommunications.

Also in September, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski said that we need to connect the hardest-to-reach areas of the country and the least-advantaged consumers to the benefits of affordable, high-speed, high-capacity broadband. Sadly, 19 million of our fellow Americans still have no access to home broadband and roughly 30% of all Americans are still not connected to high-speed Internet services – services many of us take for granted. Those gaps have to be closed. For its part, the Benton Foundation has focused staff resources in two areas that we feel can help address broadband access and adoption challenges.

  • Lifeline Modernization: Benton saw success in its work to strengthen the low-income support program of the Universal Service Fund. In late January, the FCC completed a modernization of the Lifeline program, addressing a number of concerns raised by a coalition of public interest and civil rights organizations led by Amina Fazlullah, Benton Policy Counsel. The Benton Foundation firmly believes that Lifeline must support the ability of low-income consumers to access broadband if they are to fully participate in 21st century society. The FCC agreed and is now in the process of selecting broadband pilot programs to help inform this transition. Benton suggested, and the FCC agreed, that lessons learned from the Department of Commerce’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) will be invaluable to modernizing Lifeline.
  • In May, the Benton Foundation and Connected Living co-hosted a day-long examination of the challenges related to broadband adoption by low-income elderly consumers. Getting Seniors Online highlighted the work of several BTOP projects targeting low-income seniors. We also looked at one non-BTOP funded project in Miami which serves a multicultural community. Here’s a sampling of what we learned:
    • Barriers to adoption for the elderly include anxiety. Projects reported that many seniors fear that they’ll break the computer or otherwise do something wrong.
    • The elderly experience greater socio-economic disparities than other age groups.
    • Effective approaches consider age tiers, rather than lumping seniors into a “65 years+” category.
    • It is critical to include the elderly in planning successful program: “Do with, not for.”

Headlines Editor Kevin Taglang and Chief Technologist Jeremy Isett continue to add resources to help our audiences stay informed on the fast-moving and ever-changing telecommunications landscape. Former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps became a monthly contributor to Benton’s Digital Beat blog, sharing his thoughts and insights on the hottest policy debates of the day. To nobody’s surprise, Commissioner Copps’ commentaries are must reads for policymakers and policy activists alike.

Benton maintains strong working relationships with a number of coalitions to further our mission. The Public Interest Public Airwaves Coalition (PIPAC) is an effective advocate for political advertising disclosure requirements for television broadcasters, the importance of which became so apparent during the 2012 presidential election. Obscene amounts of money bought record numbers of political ads, yet TV viewers would be hard pressed to know who exactly paid to get their attention (and their vote) if not for the rules championed by PIPAC!

Strong public interest voices are needed now more than ever. Our field suffered great losses in 2012 with the closing of the Media Access Project (MAP) and the scaling back of the Media and Democracy Coalition. Led by our friend and colleague Andy Schwartman, MAP has been a force in the public interest community for nearly 40 years. As one of the few public interest law firms, MAP provided the field with some of the very best and most talented attorneys working on telecommunications and media policy issues. MAP alums are sprinkled across the public interest landscape and we’re richer as a result.

On a final personal note, I am grateful to have been appointed by President Barack Obama this year to the National Museum and Library Services Board, which governs the Institute of Museum and Library Services. In a sense, this appointment brings me full circle. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter appointed me as Chairman of the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science and as Chairman of the first White House Conference on Library and Information Services, held in November of 1979. It is an honor to serve again to help inspire libraries and museums to advance innovation, lifelong learning, and cultural and civic engagement.

As we take on the challenges that 2013 will surely bring, Benton will continue to rely on the wisdom and expertise of our Board of Directors, the dedication and energy of our talented staff, and the rich resources of our allies in the field. We are truly enriched by the engagement of such a stellar group of individuals and organizations. We look forward to a very productive new year.

Charles Benton, Chairman

By Charles Benton.