Tell the truth: when people say “lifetime service awards,” you think “retirement.” So it is with mixed feelings that I share with you I will be honored with one on Wednesday. The Consumer Federation of America, which represents 300 non-profit consumer organizations around the country, will be presenting me with the Betty Furness Consumer Media Service Award. The honor is much greater because I will be sharing the dais with three other recipients: Lisa Madigan, the attorney general of Illinois; U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio; and Albert Foer, a leading voice in antitrust issues.
The awards, and the short speeches, will be presented at the Capital Hilton Hotel in Washington D.C., at a dinner “to honor distinguished lifetime service to consumers.”
I’m so flattered and humbled. Any writer will tell you the eternal question you ask yourself, no matter how successful you might seem to others, is simply “Is anyone reading?” So an award like this helps me feel a little better about the answer to that question.
Those of you who know anything about my journey from Web news startup to major media to independent journalist know there’s a special reason I am excited about this. When I left NBC News two years ago and set out my own shingle, I worried that my stories would disappear from view. Many of the topics I write about — privacy, technology run amok, the disappearing middle class — might disappear with me. Coming now, as I struggle to help fix the news business, this award means a lot to me.
But rather than dwell on the “lifetime service” part of this, let me dwell on the Betty Furness part of this. Betty would never have it, anyway.
I grew up cheering on Betty as she shamed misbehaving companies on New York television, and then on the TODAY show.
Furness, rather famously, never retired — she simply reinvented. She was a breakthrough early TV star and a pioneer for women. But half-way through her very comfortable life as the suburban face of Westinghouse appliances, Furness took the leap to consumer protection in the Johnson administration. Within a few years, she was hired by WNBC-TV to be the station’s consumer reporter — practically inventing the category.
“I quit because I was restless. I wanted to be me,” Furness said.
Here’s how the New York Times described Furness in its obituary for her.
“In her heyday with WNBC-TV in New York, she regularly broadcast the names of errant businesses and shoddy products. She pointed television cameras at stores where New Yorkers had been cheated, and lectured the proprietors. She reported on hamburger that was too fat, on warranties that were too lean, on gadgets that were too temperamental and on business ethics that she saw as seriously flawed. She even scolded Macy’s.”
Before Betty, local TV was afraid to names names and shame when shame was required. Executives said that audiences weren’t interested (while they were counting advertising dollars). The popularity of Betty’s segments proved them horribly wrong. Eventually, she rose to fill-in anchor at TODAY, replacing Barbara Walters for a time.
“Many a local television station brought on a consumer reporter in various cities around the country because producers saw Betty defy the conventional odds and make the Today Show segment a highly rated few minutes,” says Ralph Nader about Furness on his website. “Betty Furness overcame those taboos and raised the integrity of journalism more than a few notches. She came through on television with clarity, honesty, and sometimes a bit of humor. With her strong voice and graphic illustrations of how more than a few businesses rip off or harm consumers, she made a public service out of the public airwaves. In a line of work where one serious error could shorten a television journalist’s career, Betty Furness persevered and prevailed.”
America needs a lot of things right now, but the spirit of Betty Furness sits atop that list. If someone thinks I am carrying on even a little of her tradition, I couldn’t be more proud of that.
I’ll have some images and some more remarks about the event on Thursday. Then, back to work. As Betty might say, there’s a lot to do.
But before you go, here’s a bit more Nader on Betty:
“Betty, you taught millions of people how never to retire, how always to grow into different careers while using the skills developed from prior work to be ever more useful to the society around you. You’ve earned a place in American history all by yourself, your true grit and irrepressible interest in what is important in peoples’ lives. No one had a larger constituency — the consumers of America. No one was truer to their claims for justice.”
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