Tweet about FCC member’s new job at Comcast sets off firestorm

Comcast has absorbed a lot of criticism since its decision last week to hire Meredith Attwell Baker, a sitting member of the Federal Communications Commission.

But one critical remark really got under the company’s skin.

When an employee of Reel
Grrls, a nonprofit educational program
in Seattle, sent a tweet questioning Baker’s hiring after the commissioner voted to approve Comcast’s mega-venture with NBC Universal, Comcast’s reaction was swift and harsh.

The company cut off funding for Reel Grrls’ summer camp, where 15 teenage girls learn documentary script writing, editing and filmmaking.

The reaction to the funding cutoff was also severe — and added to consumer advocates’ criticism of Comcast. Some are trying to drum up a congressional investigation into whether Baker’s new job pre­sents a conflict of interest. Baker had criticized the FCC’s review of Comcast’s joint venture with NBC Universal for taking too long and voted in favor of the merger in a
4 to 1 decision in January.

The apparent revolving door has been the fodder of satire and criticism by late-night TV comedians, newspaper editorials and consumer groups. And the move by Comcast to scrap funding for a small nonprofit for questioning Baker’s appointment only shows how influential a giant media company can be, the critics say.

Baker starts her new job June 3. She has recused herself from any further FCC votes and hasn’t indicated her exact departure date from the agency.

For Reel Grrls, the problems began May 12, with a 98-character message on Twitter.

After Baker announced her job change, a Reel Grrls employee wrote: “OMG! @FCC Commissioner Baker voted 2 approve Comcast/NBC merger & is now lving FCC for A JOB AT COMCAST?!?”

Turns out that a Comcast executive in charge of sponsoring the Reel Grrls summer program was reading and wasn’t pleased. Last Friday, Comcast Vice President Steve Kipp wrote Reel Grrls an e-mail with a link to the tweet, saying the cable giant wouldn’t contribute the $18,000 it had promised for the film camp.

“I am frankly shocked that your organization is slamming us on Twitter,” Kipp wrote. 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.”

He said it wasn’t the first time Reel Grrls presented Comcast in a negative light. Reel Grrls also wrote a critical tweet when the Comcast-NBC deal was approved.

On Thursday, in response to media inquiries, Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice said the company was sorry and wants to reinstate the funding. Kipp was not authorized to pull Reel Grrls’ sponsorship, she said.

Still, the incident created a public relations headache for Comcast. “Only when the press put attention on Comcast’s decision to stop giving checks to aspiring young women filmmakers did things change,” said Craig Aaron, president of the public interest group Free Press.

Reel Grrls Executive Director Malory Graham said that she appreciates the apology and that the group’s board has not yet decided whether it will accept the funds. Reel Grrls wants to continue to partner with Comcast, which has been funding a summer camp for three years, but also wants to ensure that employees can speak freely about their ideas, even if they are politically unflattering to their sponsors.

“We are pleased that the public debate on this issue has caused Comcast to reconsider this decision and hope to continue the discussion about how we can best ensure that corporations do not play a role in stifling free expression or limiting Americans’ access to information,” Graham said.

Cecilia Kang is a national technology reporter, writing about tech and Internet policies at the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission and how regulations affect businesses and consumers.
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