Trusting Comcast to Fund Independent News?

Nonprofit news outlets across the country can now apply to become a local news partner of Comcast/NBC. These new partnerships could mean a new funding stream for nonprofit local journalism, but they come with some serious caveats. After all, this is the same company that pulled funding from a small non-profit youth media group last week for tweeting a message that the company didn’t like. Just imagine what could happen if a Comcast-funded news outlet runs a story counter to the company’s bottom line.

In a last ditch effort to win support from lawmakers for their merger back in January, Comcast and NBC promised to forge partnerships between NBC stations and at least five local nonprofit news organizations. The move was heralded by some in the nonprofit journalism sector, while others, including me, raised questions about how serious Comcast and NBC were in their commitment to local nonprofit journalism.

Last week we got an answer to those questions when Comcast threatened to pull $18,000 of funding from Reel Grrls, a Seattle based youth documentary organization, because they tweeted about FCC Commissioner Meredith Baker becoming a lobbyist for the cable company just months after voting to approve their merger.

In an earlier post, I outlined Comcast’s long and problematic history with free speech, but at its most basic, Comcast's threats against Reel Grrls will have a chilling effect on all nonprofits that get money from Comcast. It’s clear that taking funding from Comcast has strings attached, strings can be used to strangle those groups that accept it. Just look at the language in the email Comcast sent to Reel Grrls:

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. [...] 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.

The Reel Grrls example has to be a consideration for nonprofit journalism organizations who are thinking about working with the media giant around these local news partnerships. What happens when one of these nonprofits wants to cover a local telecommunications issue, or do a public interest piece on rising cable rates? Do local reporters have to worry if they tweet about how bad their Comcast Internet service is? If Comcast is watching its “digital footprint” this closely, you can bet it won’t be happy if one of their nonprofit news partners wants to investigate a story where the company is implicated.

After the national press broke the Reel Grrls story, Comcast executives promised to restore funding to the organization, but Reel Grrls declined the offer, citing free speech concerns. The executive director released a statement which said, “Given the serious questions Comcast’s initial decision to take punitive measures on our organization raised about the ability of corporations to stifle public discussion, we have decided to redesign our summer camp to focus on developing films about free press issues.”

If Comcast is willing to threaten a local youth media organization over a tweet, what would stop it from pulling funding from a local nonprofit journalism website over a story? For news organizations looking to get out from underneath the thumb of commercial media pressures that have gutted newsrooms and shaped coverage, these two are too close for comfort. And for the public looking for independent, watchdog journalism, be cautious if there’s a Comcast logo in the corner.

People + Policy

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people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good