Comcast cuts off non-profit funding for tweet

Faith Merino · May 20, 2011 · Short URL:

A tweet about Comcast's controversial FCC issues leads the company to cut funds for teen summer camp

Evidently, Comcast doesn’t take too kindly to folk who question its integrity. Especially when those folk are on the receiving end of Comcast’s charity. Reel Grrls, a non-profit filmmaking summer camp for teenage girls, tweeted about Comcast’s controversial hiring of FCC commissioner Meredith Baker (right after Baker approved the Comcast/NBC merger deal), and Comcast responded with a quick and decisive iron fist: no more funds for Reel Grrls. The Washington Post first reported on this.

Comcast has since apologized and told Real Grrls that funding would be reinstated, but the non-profit organization said it will not be partnering with Comcast again and will look for funds elsewhere. The group explained its decision in the following statement:

Given the serious questions Comcast’s initial decision to take punitive measures on our organization raised about the ability of corporations to stifle public discussion, we have decided to redesign our summer camp to focus on developing films about free press issues. We have also decided that we will not be partnering with Comcast on the camp and will instead pursue other sources of funding. We appreciate Comcast’s desire to rectify this situation and hope to encourage them to craft a corporate policy that clearly defends freedom of expression in order to ensure that this situation does not arise again. 

While we are heartened that Comcast has apologized for its actions, we believe this incident underscores the bigger problems associated with the overwhelming concentration of power that the Comcast/NBC merger and the resulting hire of Baker represent. It was only after a very public debate about Comcast’s punitive actions toward our organization that Comcast was motivated to change its position. Unfortunately, it is exactly this type of public debate that can be squelched by mergers that threaten to raise the price for access to information, limit consumers’ choices in entertainment and news and give large media corporations the power to decide which opinions will see the light of day.

There are a couple of interesting points to this story that are worth noting right off the bat: 1) Comcast has been facing a slew of criticism over the hiring of Baker from a range of sources (not just Real Grrls), as it definitely calls forth some conflict-of-interest questions, and 2) the offending tweet was actually…not offensive at all.

So let’s start at the beginning: four months ago, then-FCC commissioner Meredith Baker approved a merger deal between Comcast and NBC in a 4-to-1 vote, and even criticized how long it took the FCC to approve the deal. The merger would create a $30 billion company that would essentially have a monopoly on the media industry. As Jon Stewart said succinctly: "This monopoly is awesome! I don't know why this doesn't happen more often. Oh right, 'cause it's illegal..."

Meredith Baker was instrumental in getting the deal passed and called the approval process slow and cumbersome. And then wouldn’t you know, last week Baker announced that she would be leaving her post as the FCC commissioner to take a new lobbying position with Comcast-NBC as the new SVP of governmental affairs. Illegal, no. Ethically questionable, yes.

“She’s barred from lobbying for the FCC, but that doesn’t mean she can’t use her connections in congress and elsewhere to push Comcast’s agenda,” said Free Press political advisor Joel Kelsey in an interview. “It’s not the only example of a revolving door aspect of FCC staff leaving the commission to go work for the companies they once regulated, but it certainly is the most blatant example, and it’s turned this revolving door into really a valet service where the regulated companies pull up a limo right in front of the FCC and cart off the commissioners to their new high-paying jobs, working for the companies they were once charged with protecting the public from.”

Free Press has even created a “Say no to the Comcast-FCC merger” petition.

So how does that relate to the innocuous non-profit summer camp Real Grrls? Apparently, shortly after the announcement was made that Baker would be leaving the FCC to work for Comcast, a Real Grrls employee tweeted about it.

“OMG! @FCC Commissioner Baker voted 2 approve Comcast/NBC merger & is now lving FCC for A JOB AT COMCAST?!?”

As anyone can plainly see, there is nothing in the tweet that actually condemns Comcast for the move. But that was how Steve Kipp, VP of Corporate Communications, saw the tweet, and he promptly responded with an outraged email.

“I am frankly shocked that your organization is slamming us on Twitter,” Kipp wrote somewhat histrionically, adding that the tweet “has put me in an indefensible position with my bosses. I cannot continue to ask them to approve funding for Reel Grrls, knowing that the digital footprint your organization has created about Comcast is a negative one.”

How much funding was Kipp cutting off? No less than $18,000—the sum Comcast has given Real Grrls every summer for the last three years.

But Comcast spokesperson Sena Fitzmaurice later stated that Kipp was not authorized to pull funding from Real Grrls and that Comcast is sorry for his actions and would like to reinstate the funding. Comcast SVP Len Rozek apologized to Real Grrls in the following email:

"This morning I was shocked to learn that someone on my team reached out to you to withdraw our funding. I apologize for Steve’s email, and assure you that Comcast’s funding of Reel Grrls will continue.

"Comcast has long been a proud sponsor of Reel Grrls and your youth leadership development programs designed to empower young women through media production. Your organization aligns with our company’s investment priorities, and your positive impact on the girls and women you serve in Washington is making a real difference here in Washington. 

"I look forward to our continuing efforts to make Washington a better place for all of us to live and work."

Some Real Grrls students put together this spicy video to express their thoughts on Comcast’s actions. 


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