The Comcast Lobby
On Feb. 12, Comcast announced that it was buying Time Warner Cable for 45 billion dollars. Though the two companies do not compete directly in any markets, there are many questions as to whether this merger will be approved by the FCC or stopped under anti-trust laws. Regulators will investigate the deal based on the power of the new company, and how this power will be augmented in negotiations with other cable networks as well as relative to the cable consumer.
“We’re concerned about the consolidation of media power across platforms,” Josh Stearns, the Press Freedom Director of media advocacy group Free Press, told the Observer. “This new company would have an incredible amount of power over what we watch, read, see, and hear. We’re worried about a lack of competition and diversity and consumer choice.”
However, many other groups and entities have come out in favor of the new merger—but their reasons can be traced to the Comcast payroll. The United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce announced its support a few hours after the merger was announced. Comcast’s charitable foundation has given the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce $320,000 over the last five years. Comcast has said it is looking to have many of these sorts of endorsements from members of both state and congressional legislatures, as well as nonprofit and minority-led groups.
Comcast is using its vast web of lobbyists and their immense capital—$25,489,500 spent in 2013—to ensure that these endorsements come in. Since 2008, when it became mandatory for corporations to disclose philanthropic gifts, Comcast and Time Warner Cable have together directed more than $3.7 million to “honor” various lawmakers—traditionally minority lawmakers. Many of these lawmakers supported Comcast when they bought out NBC in 2011, another controversial deal.
Comcast and Time Warner have also contributed millions to caucus-affiliated nonprofits: over $990,000 to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, almost $800,000 to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, $281,000 to the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies, and $135,000 to the Congressional Black Caucus Policy and Leadership Institute.
Comcast argues that the company has a long history of promoting diversity and aiding in educating minorities. But if all these groups support the merger, it is likely that Comcast’s support of diversity will lead to a dearth of a different kind of diversity in American cable service—the kind of monolithic media Josh Stearns is concerned about.
Comcast has pledged to divest three million Time Warner Cable subscribers, and to continue their commitment to net neutrality—meaning they will not provide faster and better Internet services to customers who pay more.
Stearns is not convinced. “There are plenty of people who get money from Comcast,” he said, “Right now we need the people who have a real stake in this issue, such as our half a million members who care about their communities and media, to get the chance to be heard. This debate will probably go on for a year. We need policy makers to listen.”
Distancing himself from groups that have come out in support of the buyout, Stearns added, “Here at Free Press we don’t take any money from companies or agencies. We are supported only by donations from members.”
Not only does Comcast pay support to many members of Congress, but they also recruit many of their lobbyists from within the US government. In 2011, Meredith Attwell Baker, then Federal Communications Commissioner, announced she was resigning to become a lobbyist for Comcast. Four months before, Baker had voted in favor of the Comcast and NBC Universal merger.
This is not a new phenomenon. Baker’s boss at Comcast, Kyle McSlarrow, is the head of Comcast’s lobbying and government-affairs office. McSlarrow previously worked as the Deputy Secretary of Energy in the George W. Bush administration, worked for three Republican senators, and worked on Dan Quayle’s presidential campaign.
Are these enticing, lucrative lobbying jobs influencing lawmakers to be lenient in the hopes that they will one day themselves be able to find employment? Even if they wish to be, can our politicians be unbiased when Comcast is donating massive amounts of money and offering jobs?
Comcast insists there is no foul play at work. “People would like to take this 20-plus year-old incredible commitment to communities and these organizations and would like to make it a bad thing—that we are buying off support for the transaction,” David L. Cohen, the Executive Vice President of Comcast Corporation who also runs Comcast’s charitable foundation, told the New York Times. “That is simply not true,” he said. “And I believe it is offensive to the organizations we support.”