Presented in partnership with the Benton Foundation
Charles Benton has been gone less than a week, but I miss him already. I miss him as friend, as a thoroughly delightful person, and—apropos to this testimonial—a dauntless and effective champion of the public interest. I could not have admired this good man more. Charming and gentle, yes, but tenacious and indefatigable too, he left this world much better than he found it.
I can see him now, making his way down the long hallway to visit me at the FCC. As the years went by, it was with the help of a walker, trudging slowly but with always a big smile on his welcoming face, and somehow managing to convey behind him a wheeled cart, filled with a prodigious stack of materials he wanted to talk about and share with me.
I treasured those visits, and I always will. Charles exuded genuineness. No Washington double-speak for him, no hidden agendas, nothing coy, nothing pertinent held back. It was just Charles being Charles, telling it like he saw it (which was usually exactly like it was), and asking for nothing other than public policy to make peoples’ lives better.
At first I wondered where his deep dedication to the public interest came from. I knew he descended from a distinguished family and a privileged background. But this was no case of noblesse oblige, no second or third generation sense of obligation to pay something back for the advantages he had enjoyed. This was instead public interest in his bones, his heart, and his brain.
Charles was a man of many parts. His interests and causes were legion—education, literacy, schools, libraries, museums, a wide range of arts, and civic causes galore. I knew him best for the work he did and the actions he inspired in communications and the media, both in their traditional guises of radio, television and telephones, and then as a visionary on broadband and the Internet.
Charles could get into the nitty-gritty of policy wonk with the best of them, but it was his ability to grasp the big picture that struck me most directly. Here’s one example. Over the past few years he and I talked and strategized about how broadband should rightly be seen as a civil right. I shared his conviction that no one could be a fully-productive citizen in the twenty-first century without having high-speed, affordable broadband. The Internet is central in our lives—it’s how we find and do our jobs, educate ourselves and our kids and grandkids, take care of our health, and find the news and information that we need in order to participate productively in our democracy. Charles believed that without access to modern communications, individuals will be consigned to second-class citizenship. And we agreed that ours is a nation that has endured more than enough second-class citizenship.
My friend moved mountains to get the broadband Internet deployed and adopted in every nook and cranny of our country. He developed and helped implement practical plans to realize his vision, both in Illinois where he lived and throughout the nation, particularly in rural America, the inner city, and tribal lands. He understood how schools and libraries could contribute to our kids and our communities, and he was a strong proponent of the E-Rate program. He believed also in a modernized Lifeline program to help low-income Americans access the necessary tools of the Information Age.
Underlying this commitment to universal broadband was Charles’ understanding that democracy was at the center of the matter. We shared the belief that that self-government rests on an informed citizenry, and an informed citizenry depends upon an open and fully-nourished civic dialogue. That, in turn, means media that shoulder a large part of the job of bringing citizens the news and information they need to make informed judgments and cast intelligent votes. Charles was into this issue before almost anyone else, going back to the 1960s and his Fund for Media Research and, in the 1970s, the National Citizens’ Committee for Broadcasters. Later, President Bill Clinton appointed him to the Advisory Committee on The Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters—more widely-known as the Gore Commission. Together we mourned the decline of investigative journalism and the substitution of glossy infotainment for the news and information democracy craves. We deplored Big Media’s shuttering of newsrooms as mega-media companies threw thousands of journalists out on the street.
Up until the end, Charles was in the thick of battle for an Open Internet. As so much of our civic dialogue goes online, he appreciated that democracy could tolerate no gate-keeping, no fast lanes for the few, no blocking or prioritizing content. He lived to see the Federal Communications Commission do the right thing in February of this year, and I know he smiled about that—and about the wise agency decision encouraging community, or municipal, broadband. I think he is still smiling about these major victories that he helped propel.
I could go on but, more importantly, Charles Benton’s work will go on. Marjorie Craig Benton, the love of his life for more than 60 years of marriage and the person who inspired Charles so he could inspire us, will see to that. His daughter Adrianne, already at the helm with Charles in recent years, has established herself as a worthy successor to her father and as a champion of the public interest in her own right. Beyond his wife and children, Charles’ family included the brilliant and devoted Benton Foundation team. These are experts we rely on for research, news, and analysis day-in and day-out. They are an integral and important component of our country’s public interest infrastructure. They learned their lessons from Charles and they learned them well. We really need the Benton Foundation! Charles’ passing leaves a void, but his legacy is a rock that will continue to bear witness to the ideals that motivated his storied life.
So, Farewell, my friend! Your accomplishments, your courage, your grace and simple kindness, live on in us all. Thank you for being not just a national treasure, but a beloved comrade and a truly formative influence in my life. My thanks, my love, go with you.
Office: Common Cause National
Issues: Media and Democracy