Comcast's big bucks to minority groups may aid merger
As Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable Inc. roll out a massive lobbying effort to win regulatory approval for the merger of the nation’s two largest cable companies, one key step for the companies will be garnering the support of prominent civil rights and minority groups.
Comcast has already shown it can pull support from key minority groups — dozens sent letters of support to the Federal Communications Commission, which must approve the buyout, while it was considering Comcast’s last mega-deal — its 2011 purchase of NBC/Universal.
As tax data analyzed as part of a collaboration between the Center for Public Integrity and the New York Times show, 55 such groups both accepted funds from Comcast’s corporate foundation between 2004 and 2012 and sent letters to the FCC supporting the Comcast-NBCU deal.
Those include large and well-established organizations such as the National Urban League, which received $835,000 from Comcast’s foundation during the period, as well as local groups such as the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, which received $42,300 in grants from Comcast since 2009.
The data also show an emphasis by Comcast in building links to the Hispanic community. Of the $8.6 million given to groups that offered support in the NBC deal, nearly 60 percent went to Hispanic groups. The recipients included the National Council of La Raza ($2.2 million), the Hispanic Federation ($345,000) and the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce ($320,000).
Indeed, the USHCC hailed the Comcast-Time Warner Cable announcement on the same day the deal was announced for “forging an innovative world-class technology company, with increased capacity to deliver ground-breaking products.”
Support for the Time Warner Cable deal from the National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest Hispanic civil rights group, would likely be even more helpful to Comcast.
In 2010, while the FCC was scrutinizing Comcast’s NBC purchase, La Raza was one of six Hispanic groups to send a letter to the FCC’s chairman highlighting an agreement they had struck with Comcast and NBC in advance of the merger.
As part of that deal, Comcast and NBC made a number of concessions, including the creation of new Spanish programming, increased funding for Hispanic scholarships, greater minority hiring and the addition of a Hispanic to Comcast’s board of directors.
The agreement with the merging companies would “promote the goals of expanding economic opportunity for Hispanic families and preserving and enhancing programming for Hispanic audiences,” Janet Marguia, La Raza’s president, and five other Hispanic leaders wrote to the FCC.
That agreement, and similar deals with other minority groups that have received Comcast funds, has drawn criticism from those who say the civil rights groups are selling short the interests of their constituents.
“Comcast has very big relationships with a lot of Hispanic politicians and nonprofit groups and I hope they are more challenging of this deal,” says Joe Torres, a spokesman for Free Press, a group that often opposes Comcast. “This is a massive merger and I’m hoping there will be a lot more skepticism.”
Others are less forgiving.
“They got nothing, all they did was make sure the Hispanic audience would be targeted more effectively through the Comcast-NBC machine,” says Jeffrey Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a group that opposes media consolidation. “You have an overall problem of civil rights groups and others being on bended knee in front of corporations for their donations.”
David Cohen, Comcast's government affairs chief, rejects any such criticism.
“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,” Cohen said in an interview with the Times, referring to the Comcast Foundation’s $140 million in grants since its inception and more than $3.2 billion since 2001 when all kinds of corporate support (cash and in-kind support like free public service announcements) are included. “That is simply not true. And I believe it is offensive to the organizations we support.”
Lisa Navarete, a spokeswoman for La Raza, says the 2010 deal with Comcast and NBC didn’t constitute a formal endorsement of the merger. More than three years after the agreement, she says the group is generally satisfied with Comcast’s outreach to Hispanics, though she says the group is concerned about the near-absence of Hispanic anchors on MSNBC or Hispanic actors on NBC staples such as “Saturday Night Live.” Still, she praises Comcast’s moves to add a Hispanic to its board, establish a minority advisory council and launch El Rey, an English-language channel targeting Hispanics.
The $2.2 million La Raza has received from Comcast will not affect the group’s planned negotiations with the company about the proposed Time Warner merger, nor did Comcast donations influence the group’s stance toward the NBC deal, Navarete says.
“The implication of those types of thoughts is minority organizations aren’t smart or sophisticated enough to be able to take money and still make a decision based on the merits,” she says. “I think its offensive to say we take positions based on who we get money from.”
To be sure, not all Hispanic groups have supported Comcast’s acquisitions. In 2010, the Latino Business Chamber of Los Angeles wrote to the FCC to oppose Comcast’s acquisition of NBC/Universal, citing negative stereotyping of Latinos in the companies’ programming and a dearth of Hispanic executives.
The Latino Chamber’s chief executive, Theresa Martinez, says the group will likely oppose the Time Warner deal as well, citing the effect of higher cable and Internet prices on the poor — particularly in light of the creation of a new Time Warner cable channel for the Los Angeles Dodgers that could increase cable rates $5 per month. As for Hispanic groups that have lined up with Comcast in the past, she terms their motives “political.”
“I say it’s political because sometimes money talks,” she says. “You can be bought out for things like that and you don’t look at the big picture.”