Watch What You Tweet: Comcast and Free Speech

Last week, Comcast highlighted how broken our policymaking is when it hired a sitting FCC Commissioner to become one of its chief lobbyists, just months after she rubber-stamped their merger with NBC-Universal. This week, Comcast threatened to cut funding to a Seattle-based youth media nonprofit after the organization tweeted about Comcast’s new hire:

“OMG! @FCC Commissioner Baker voted 2 approve Comcast/NBC merger & is now lving FCC for A JOB AT COMCAST?!?http://su.pr/1trT4z #mediajustice”

You’ve got to see the organization’s fantastic video response to Comcast below, and find out how this action shines a spotlight on Comcast’s long history impinging on free speech.

The Washington Post reported that soon after the tweet, a VP of communications for Comcast’s Washington state office dashed off an email to the nonprofit Reel Grrls:

Given the fact that Comcast has been a major supporter of Reel Grrls for several years now, I am frankly shocked that your organization is slamming us on Twitter. I cannot in good conscience continue to provide you with funding — especially when there are so many other deserving nonprofits in town.

The $18,000 in funding Comcast gives Reel Grrls helps fund a summer media literacy and training program that engages girls in making documentaries. Reel Grrls’ executive director Malory Graham told the Post, “We are saddened that Comcast’s reaction to this debate over ideas was to punish local youth by defunding a program that offers young women in our community an opportunity to turn their summers into life-changing experiences.”

Not long after news of their threats hit the web, Comcast began back-pedaling, calling the action a “mistake” and assuring the press that they would continue funding the group.

When Business Deals Trump Free Speech

This isn’t the first time Comcast has tried to bully or silence people it disagrees with. Last fall, Terry Ann Knopf published a long article in the Columbia Journalism Review on Barry Nolan. Nolan was the host of a popular public affairs show on Comcast’s CN8 network who got on Bill O’Reilly’s bad side. Nolan was upset that the Boston/New England chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences had chosen to award the cable news provocateur with their top journalism honor. At the awards dinner, Nolan distributed flyers with some of O’Reilly’s most outrageous quotes and misrepresentations.

Two days later, Comcast suspended Nolan and a week later they fired him for good. Nolan sued Comcast and documents that emerged during the court case showed how Comcast put business interests ahead of free speech.

After the ceremony, Bill O’Reilly wrote a letter to Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, complaining about Nolan. “Once Comcast was in receipt of the O’Reilly letter, e-mails, talking points, and memos went flying from one jittery Comcast executive to another. Should they call O’Reilly? Who should call? Should they send a letter? Who should draft it? Who should sign it?” reports  Knopf. “Documents, filed with the court, reveal that Comcast and Fox were involved in ‘ongoing;’ contract talks at the time, with Comcast fearing Nolan’s protest ‘jeopardized and harmed’ its business dealings with Fox.” The lesson of this story was clear: “When power meets power, the little guy had better look out, especially when the interests of media heavyweights intersect.”

The Nolan case isn’t that much different than what happened this week with Reel Grrls. There is clearly a culture within Comcast that equates money – whether it is a paycheck, a grant, or a job offer – with speech. And when free speech runs afoul of Comcast’s code of allegiance, they are quick to punish and silence their detractors.

Blocking the Internet, Silencing the Public

Blocking free speech was Comcast’s modus operandi just a few years earlier when the Federal Communications Commission was investigating them for blocking their customer’s Internet traffic. After the Associated Press revealed that Comcast was purposefully interfering with consumer’s web traffic, a violation of the FCC’s Net Neutrality principles, the FCC launched an investigation and announced a public hearing in Cambridge, Massachusetts. When the day of the hearing arrived, hundreds of local citizens were barred from entering because the room was filled to capacity.

The next day, Portfolio revealed that Comcast had paid people off the street and bussed them over to the hearing to fill the seats and keep their opponents out. The seat fillers, many of whom were actually photographed falling asleep in the front row of the hearing, were even given cues for when to applaud during certain speakers’ remarks. Comcast owned up to the seat-filler scam, and boycotted the rest of the FCC’s hearings on the issue.

Fast forward to 2011 and it would appear that Comcast is now
paying to fill seats at the FCC, not just at their hearings. While, both Comcast and FCC Commissioner Meredith Baker argue everything about her new job was done on the up-and-up, we may never know what conversations and promises were made behind closed doors. Regardless, the revolving door culture in DC is problematic enough and points out how inadequate the laws around lobbying really are. If a regulator knows that the right votes in public office can pave the way to a cushy job in a corner office, then no money needs to exchange hands. This revolving door culture erodes public trust and makes it nearly impossible for common sense public interest policies and meaning consumer protections to gain a foothold in Washington.

Donations That Chill Speech

One of the tactics Comcast used to win support for their NBC merger was rallying the nonprofit beneficiaries of its charitable giving to write to the FCC about Comcast’s role as a good corporate citizen. Ars Technica took a look at some of these letters and commented, “We think it’s great that NBCU and Comcast do these nice things for worthy groups, though it’s clear from examples like this that spreading the wealth around in a community can produce more than mere philanthropy—it’s good for some political backing, too, when the need arises.” The
New York Times talked
to one of the nonprofits who submitted letters in support
of Comcast, “She said that the letter had been sent to the FCC after she was contacted by Comcast and provided with a draft.” The situation this week with Reel Grrls shows just how fickle Comcast’s support really is. Like public officials who know their votes may be rewarded later, many nonprofits understand that their funding may be at risk if they step out of line.

In the end, no matter how much Comcast gives to good causes, that number is dwarfed by how much they spend lobbying for media policies that hurt local communities. Reel Grrls understood that, and if Comcast really valued free speech it would understand that too. The response from Reel Grrls has been tremendous. They’ve been principled, open and willing to hear Comcast out – but they’ve also refused to be silenced.

When news of the Comcast’s threat broke, a few of the teens who are involved
with Reel Grrls headed into the studio to respond. The video (see it below) shows the power of a program like Reel Grrls that empowers girls through media and
gives them the tools to respond critically and creatively to policies that impact their lives. Now people from around the country are stepping up to help Reel Grrls fund their work – you can donate here.

Regardless of the outcome of this specific case, this event has no doubt sent a chill through the nonprofit community who receives funding from Comcast. It shines a spotlight on Comcast’s ongoing disregard for free speech at a time when it is taking control of one of the nation’s longest standing news operations at NBC and highlights just how far Comcast is willing to go to shut down its critics. With Comcast’s merger, it is one of the most formidable media giants of our modern age, and it seems ready to wield that power in troubling ways.

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