Finding Your Voice

Charles Benton
30th Annual Everett C. Parker Ethics in Telecommunications Award
September 25, 2012
(prepared remarks)

Everett Parker is a role model for us all. That is why for my comments today I called several old friends to ask how he had inspired them. Let’s begin with Andy Schwartzman, who started as a young assistant to Earl K. (Dick) Moore, Everett’s lawyer on the WLBT case.

Andy’s three insights from Everett were:

  1. The work has to be driven by an ethic.
  2. You need patience; it takes a while to accomplish things.
  3. Don’t be afraid of difficult challenges.

Let me elaborate on these points, drawing from my WLBT gospel, Kay Mills’ book, “Changing Channels: The Civil Rights Case that Transformed Television.”

First, about Everett’s ethic. He said, “If you really believe in what the bible says, and I do, you have to, if you have any ground to stand on or any resources to use that you can help people who are voiceless, you have to do it if you want to act as a Christian. And I think that is what drives me.”

Second, about patience. After the United Church of Christ filed its appeal to the federal court, Everett met with Paul Porter, WLBT’s lawyer. Porter threatened to stretch the case out long enough to bankrupt UCC. To which Parker said he replied, “Well, Paul, if it runs 10 years or 15 years and if your dead and I’m dead, the United Church of Christ will still be in there.” Incidentally, the case actually did take 16 years before it was finally resolved.

Third, don’t fear the challenge. Following its hearings on the case, the Federal Communications Commission ruled to renew WLBT’s license in 1968 and the two dissenting commissioners, Kenneth Cox and Nick Johnson summed up the elements of the challenge as follows, quote “This case has everything. A racist television station in Mississippi. An offended citizenry that actually takes the expensive and frustrating course of involving itself in the license renewal process. A church as a party. Negros protesting the programming abuse received by that nearly 50 per cent of the people in the station’s viewing area who are black. A landmark, first impression decision by the U.S. court of appeals awarding ‘standing’ to such parties. The station’s misrepresentation to the Commission over the years. The Commission’s contortions to keep the public out entirely, then to place upon them an impossible burden of proof, then to reverse long-held precedents and ignore the clear suggestions of the court as to the standards to be applied.” Even more explicitly, let me quote from Commissioner Michael Copps’ September monthly blog for the Benton Foundation on Reform: The Everett Parker Way: “Justice Berger said that the broadcast industry does not seem to have grasped the simple fact that a broadcast license is a public trust subject to termination for breach of duty.”

I also spoke to my old friend Nick Johnson, who was appointed by President Johnson to the Federal Communications Commission and served 7 years. Let me tell you a story about Nick that was an important part of my finding my own voice, being the late blooming son of a famous and powerful father, William Benton. First, some background. In the late 60’s I joined the Board of the National Citizen’s Committee for Broadcasting, whose Chairman was then Tom Hoving, the Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I remember taking Tom to meet my father in his apartment at the top of the Waldorf Towers and Tom making the pitch about supporting NCCB with a major contribution…which my father agreed to during that meeting. For me it was a fascinating experience in watching my father, who was born in 1900, identifying with the crusading zeal of young Tom Hoving as a mirror of things dad did in his youth with radio when he was co-founder of Benton and Bowles.

The U.S. Court of Appeals decision in 1969 to reverse the FCC’s renewal of WLBT’s license opened up the floodgates to citizen intervention. As Kay Mills mentions in her book, between 1971 and 1973, more than 340 stations had petitions filed to deny their license renewals. A lot of this was done by Dick Moore, described by Henry Geller as “the backbone of the public interest movement in communications,” and Al Kramer, then head of the Citizens Communication Center, with the public support of the NCCB led by Tom Hoving. In late 1972, Tom moved on to other things and I was elected Chairman of NCCB. Early the following year it was announced that Nick Johnson was leaving the FCC and we approached him to see if he might be willing to join NCCB as its staff leader to help carry on the fight. He agreed to do so if we could raise $100,000 to kick it off. Then, on March 18 of 1973 my father died and the fundraiser to clinch the deal was scheduled for his birthday on April 1. I had to decide whether to postpone the event or go forward with it and ultimately, the question that drove me was, “What would my father have wanted me to do under the circumstances.” The answer was obvious and we moved forward successfully to hire Nick and the rest is history. For those who want more of that history, get Nick’s classic book, “How to Talk Back to your TV Set.”

One last story: I also called my old friend, Mark Lloyd, a former Benton Foundation board member and now serving as Associate General Counsel and Chief Diversity Officer at the FCC. In 1997 I was appointed by President Clinton as a member of the Presidential Advisory Committee on the Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters. One of the early meetings of the committee took place in October 1997 and included a briefing from one of the top lawyers affiliated with the National Association of Broadcasting, Erwin Krasnow. He titled the briefing “The Evolution of the Public Interest Standard in Broadcasting.” He started with a lengthy description of the beginning of radio broadcasting in the 20’s and took us up through issues like the primetime access rule, and he probably mentioned in passing the Fairness Doctrine, etc. At the end of his comments, he asked for questions from the floor and I remember Mark Lloyd, who was literally sitting on the floor, raising his hand and asking about a case that somehow didn’t figure into Mr. Krasnow’s history of the public interest in broadcasting. It was, of course, the WLBT case, and Krasnow really had no answer to Mark’s question.

Let me conclude with how Everett Parker’s life’s work has inspired me and the work of the Benton Foundation. As Everett was trying to give voice to the voiceless, I was trying to find my own voice in carrying on his work and building on the public service traditions of my family, especially through the Benton Foundation.

Let’s return to Andy Schwartzman’s three insights into Parker’s work:

  1. Ethic. At the Benton Foundation, we have always been guided by the values of access, diversity and equity, and by demonstrating the value of media and telecommunications for improving the quality of life for all. We seek and support policy solutions that enhance our democracy by bringing ever-more communities and individuals into identifying the challenges we all face and crafting the solutions we all need.
  2. Patience. I am constantly reminded that we public interest advocates are engaged in a marathon, not a sprint. Many of you may know of the foundation’s Headlines service, a daily update on our field. The true value of a service like ours is not measured in a day or a week or even a month, but over the course of years in a relentless chronicling of what we all hope to be an arc toward justice.
  3. Difficult challenges. I truly carry with me, Rev Parker’s desire to give “help to people who are voiceless.” At the Benton Foundation, we continually focus on engaging in the policy debates of the day from the perspective of low-income consumers. All too often, the advances in communications bypass the people and communities that could benefit the most from connections to education, to health care, to public safety and to economic development. And although these may be the hardest populations to reach and connect, our democracy, and our country suffers until we do.

Congratulations to the UCC on its 30th Anniversary of these awards and to Everett Parker on his 100th Birthday. Thank you both for inspiring me, the public interest community, and all advocates for a better world.

By Charles Benton.