When I was in Washington, D.C., a couple of weeks ago a large group of reps from various media justice and media reform organizations took time out of our schedule to meet with FCC Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker’s staff. One by one we took turns explaining our work and our community’s concerns with the potential AT&T/T-Mobile merger. Normally, these meetings involve some sort of diplomatic back-and-forth conversation. On this day we were met with a panel of stone-faced, unresponsive stares.
Our group exchanged awkward glances, thanked the staff for their time, and returned our visitor badges to security. Just as we were walking out of the building, cell phones started blowing up. Commissioner Baker had just announced she would be leaving the FCC to take a job as a lobbyist for the recently merged Comcast-NBC; the staff we had just left were obviously still reeling from the news of their soon-to-be-unemployed status.
Comcast and NBC merged just four months ago after Commissioner Baker voted in favor of their $30-million deal — also known as the “Comcastrophe” — that married the nation’s largest cable company to the country’s biggest residential internet service provider.
On May 12, the very next day, the Seattle-based Reel Grrls — a nonprofit that teaches teenage girls to make their own media — tweeted “OMG! @FCC Commissioner Baker voted 2 approve Comcast/NBC merger & is now lving FCC for A JOB AT COMCAST?!?” Soon after, Steve Kipp, Comcast’s vice president of communications, counter-struck, emailing the following:
“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.”
Reel Grrls’ executive director Malory Graham told The Washington 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.”
But instead of deleting their offending tweet and sucking up to Comcast, the Reel Grrls stood on principle: creating their own video response and alerting the media. After The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and the Associated Press sunk their teeth into this David-versus-Goliath tale, Comcast issued a statement claiming that the threats to defund the youth-based program were “unauthorized” and Reel Grrls would in fact not be losing funds promised to them.
This twisted tale magnifies how broken our policymaking is when a company as large as Comcast can hire an FCC Commissioner in office as one of their own chief lobbyists only months after a merger. What does it mean when Big Media trumps Free Speech? Josh Stearns, a fellow blogger, said it best with his Watch What You Tweet blog post on Friday, May 20:
“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.”
In response to the fiasco, the Reel Grrls chose not to accept Comcast’s funding and announced they are redeveloping their summer camp to focus on developing films about free press issues. “Reel Grrls are training the next generation of media makers and activists,” Graham wrote. “Their brave and inspiring response under pressure should be a lesson to all of us in how to defend free speech and stand up to bullies like Comcast.”
Malkia Cyril, executive director at the Center for Media Justice, has issued a call to action reminding advocates that “it’s not easy for any nonprofit to turn down $18,000.” The Center for Media Justice has asked supporters of youth media programs nationwide to chip in to ensure that the Reel Grrls summer camp stays open.
San Antonio resident and media justice activist DeAnne Cuellar blogs throughout the week at blogs.sacurrent.com. She welcomes your questions and feedback and can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Tech Tease on Twitter at @thetechtease.