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Comcast 'Tweetgate' apology thrown back in face

If only everyone had read more G.B. Shaw

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In a corporate cock-up with more angles than an anorexic runway model, Comcast has splattered mud on itself in its attempt to silence a critic, and that critic's organization has cast itself as a holier-than-thou prig.

We'll boil down the background to this tangled tale of ego and incompetence into seven simple steps:

  1. In January of this year, the US Federal Communications Commission voted to approve Comcast's $6.5 billion deal to acquire NBCUniversal. One of the more pro-deal commissioners was Meredith Attwell Baker.
  2. On May 11, Baker announced that she would resign from the FCC and join Comcast as the governmental affairs liaison for the NBCUniversal division – lobbying the same government she just resigned from.
  3. On May 12, an employee of the Seattle, Washington non-profit Reel Grrls, which "empowers young women from diverse communities" by teaching them filmmaking, tweeted: "OMG! @FCC Commissioner Baker voted 2 approve Comcast/NBC merger & is now lving FCC for A JOB AT COMCAST?!?"
  4. On May 13, Comcast VP Steve Kipp emailed Reel Grrls, and told them that because of that tweet, his company was withdrawing the $18,000 grant they had pledged in support of the non-profit's filmmaking summer camp. "Given the fact that Comcast has been a major supporter of Reel Grrls for several years now," he wrote, "I am frankly shocked that your organization is slamming us on Twitter."
  5. Between Kipp's email and this Thursday, a firestorm of criticism erupted against Comcast, with articles appearing in The Washington Post, TechDirt, and elsewhere.
  6. On Thursday, Comcast said that cutting Reel Grrls' funding was wrong, that Kipp was acting beyond his reponsibilities, and that they would reinstate the $18,000.
  7. On Friday, Reel Grrls rejected Comcast's offer to reinstate the grant. Their spokeswoman, Teresa Mozur, encouraged the communications giant to "craft a corporate policy that clearly defends freedom of expression in order to ensure that this situation does not arise again."

No one has covered themselves with glory in this sad, sloppy saga. Not Baker for pulling her unsurprising but still-depressing revolving-door job switch. Not Kipp for expecting that a corporate donation carries with it a edict against criticism. And not Mozur for her high-and-mighty "Your money is dirty" feel-good stance, firing cheap shots at Comcast rather than taking the high road and using that $18,000 to help those young women who benefit from her organization's services.

The tug-of-war between corporate philanthropists and their non-profit beneficiaries has a long history of struggles and redefinitions. When your humble reporter was a non-profit fundraiser back in the 1980s, for example, such for-pofit/non-profit partnerships were tagged with the rather explicit moniker of "cause-related marketing", a term that's now out of favor in these more-delicate days.

Also, the question as to whether a non-profit should accept money that comes encumbered by less than perfectly pure intentions and from sources with which the recipient might not fully agree has a long history. George Bernard Shaw, for example, wrote an entire play about it: Major Barbara, which questions funding sources for the Major's organization, the Salvation Army.

As Shaw wrote in a preface to his comedy, "Some [critics] thought that the [Salvation] Army would not have taken money from a distiller and a cannon founder: others thought it should not have taken it... On the first point the reply of the Army itself was prompt and conclusive. As one of its officers said, they would take money from the devil himself and be only too glad to get it out of his hands and into God's."

Kipp and Mozur both embarrassed themselves: he for his belief that his company's contribution – ostensibly given to support a good cause – should also buy only positive comments from those it supported, and she for not realizing that Comcast's money, once transferred to her organization, was transformed into untainted fuel for the good works she claims as Reel Grrls' mission.

Egos are a bee-atch, eh? I think Shaw wrote that in Misalliance, but I could be wrong. ®

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