Last week the public was dismayed and disgusted by news that FCC Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker was leaving her government job to lobby on behalf of the Comcast-NBC colossus whose merger she had just approved.
Seattle's Reel Grrls — an award-winning nonprofit group that trains teenage girls in making their own media was no exception. So they posted this tweet:
OMG! @FCC Commissioner Baker voted 2 approve Comcast/NBC merger & is now lving FCC for A JOB AT COMCAST?!? http://su.pr/1trT4z #mediajustice
But instead of being ashamed, Comcast got angry. It turns out Comcast had given the Real Grrls an $18,000 grant to run a summer program teaching filmmaking, editing and screenwriting. So its local VP fired off a livid email yanking the funds. He wrote:
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.
Without those funds, the Reel Grrls summer camp won't happen. But the Reel Grrls didn't back down or delete their tweet. Instead, they called their allies and alerted the media. They even made their own fabulous video telling their side of the story.
And once the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Associated Press got hold of the story, Comcast suddenly changed its tune. It claimed the threats were "unauthorized" and said that it wouldn't yank the funds.
It's not easy for any nonprofit to turn down $18,000. Yet even when Comcast reversed course trying to avert a PR disaster, the Reel Grrls stuck to their principles. They're telling Comcast to keep its money if it's going to try to censor what they say.
How many other nonprofits would stand up to a behemoth like Comcast? But what Comcast didn't know was that the Reel Grrls weren't alone — they're a member of the Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net), a national coalition of local organizations working together for media justice. So when Comcast yanked their money, unlike many groups Reel Grrls was well positioned to fight back.
According to their filings with the FCC in the merger proceeding, Comcast and its foundation have donated $1.8 billion to local nonprofits over the past decade. How many times did those groups have to think twice before saying something about their Internet service or cable bills? How many emails have been written like this that didn't get leaked to the press?
The email to Reel Grrls makes clear that Comcast isn't just making donations for charity. They expect the groups they support to toe the company line as well. Looking at the long list of groups otherwise disengaged from media policy that weighed in on the Comcast merger, we can't help wonder how many of them were motivated by the size of the corporate checks they received or the threat — unspoken or otherwise — of those funds disappearing if they didn't get on board.
The Real Grrls brave and inspiring response to Comcast's bullying is even more remarkable when you look at how many Washington groups ignored Meredith Baker's scandalous departure from the FCC. They certainly showed more integrity than the members of Congress who didn't even ask about Baker at a hearing on reforming the FCC — where the revolving door between the agency and the industries it's supposed to be regulating would seem to top the list of concerns.
Reel Grrls are training the next generation of media makers and activists. Their example gives me hope there are some people out there willing to do more than shrug in the face of the corruption and cronyism of public servants who are supposed to be looking out for us instead of opportunities to cash in as corporate lobbyists.
We can't think of a better way to show our support and thanks to the Reel Grrls than making sure that summer camp still happens. Free Press and the Center for Media Justice are asking our members to donate today — and if just 1,000 of us kick in 20 bucks each, we can easily make up for the money Comcast tried to take away.
We need to stand up to Comcast's censors — and show these young media makers we've got their backs.
Follow Craig Aaron on Twitter: www.twitter.com/notaaroncraig