Last summer I noted that Comcast’s PR department pretty consistently now sends me snotty e-mail “corrections.” Not about any of the thousands of articles Techdirt or I have written about the company’s abysmal customer service, punitive usage caps, ridiculously high prices, or obnoxiously anti-competitive behavior mind you, but to scold me for one and only one thing: calling the company’s top lobbyist a lobbyist.
You see, despite the fact that Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen spends the majority of his time trying to influence state and federal regulators (he was the lead salesman of the NBC and Time Warner Cable mergers), Comcast calls him the company’s “Chief Diversity Officer.” That’s because updated 2007 lobbying reporting rules require that if an employee spends more than 20% of their time lobbying in DC, they have to register with the government as a lobbyist, detail their travel with lawmakers, and more fully outline their contributions to politicians and their myriad foundations.
As a result, Cohen — and thousands of other lobbyists — simply started calling themselves something else. And ever since Comcast started complaining, I’ve of course felt compelled to refer to him as a lobbyist as often as possible. I did so again last week when I wrote a blog entry noting that Cohen saw a notable contract extension and pay raise despite his failure to get the company’s Time Warner Cable deal approved. Not too surprisingly, Comcast spokesperson Sena Fitzmaurice was quick to reach out and scold me, for what I believe is now the third time:
“I know I may be not worth asking, but could you use factual information in your pieces? It is factually incorrect to say that “David Cohen spend the lion’s share of his time pushing Comcast in policy circles just like any other lobbyist.” That is just not true. To be true, David would have to spend the lion’s share of his time in Washington, DC – which he doesn’t. It would have the be the lion’s share of his responsibilities which it isn’t. Your belittling of the serious time he devotes to his Chief Diversity Officer duties is insulting, it isn’t tap dancing around a legal rule. Our workforce is 59% diverse, our 2014 hires were 69% diverse, and David expends considerable time to his commitment as Chief Diversity officer.”
And while the Comcast HR department’s dedication to diversity is admirable, Cohen’s primary claim to “diversity” fame is his creation of “Internet Essentials,” a piece of regulator bait Cohen used to seal the NBC Universal deal to the FCC and DOJ. Crafted as a merger condition by Comcast itself, Internet Essentials is supposed to offer low-income users who qualify for the nation’s school lunch program $10 broadband for a limited time. Of course when initially released, the poor people Cohen so adores actually protested on the streets of Philadelphia, arguing that the project was a PR stunt that, in reality, was hard to qualify and sign up for.
Cohen and Comcast use Internet Essentials as a public relations and lobbying weapon to highlight the company’s incredible altruism at every conceivable opportunity. Cohen’s cherub-esque visage can often be seen standing among smiling children at what’s an endless series of PR junkets. That I doubt the purity of these efforts by arguably the least-liked company in America is most likely some kind of defect in my character, I’ll be the first to admit.
But Fitzmaurice continued, lecturing me on the fact that Comcast actually did a wonderful job at adhering to the more than 150 flimsy NBC merger conditions, most of which Comcast itself created:
“Further, your continued insistence that Comcast hasn’t adhered to the more than 150 conditions of the NBCUniversal transaction by the FCC and the DOJ consent decree belies the facts. In the nearly 5 years since the transaction was concluded, the FCC has taken 1 action on a merger condition, and that was over 3 years ago. That means the FCC has not had enforcement issues with about 150 other conditions. That hardly seems like “failed utterly to adhere to merger conditions.” Other than on that one issue of standalone broadband marketing, which was resolved and the consent decree on that issue itself has expired, the FCC and the DOJ have not taken actions on violations of conditions or the consent decree.”
And that’s technically true. The only wrist slap Comcast got was a $600 million fine from the FCC for hiding a $50 a month standalone broadband option it had promised to offer. But the fact that the FCC couldn’t be bothered to enforce the NBC merger conditions says more about the FCC than anything else. And indeed, the lion’s share of the conditions Comcast pats itself on its back for adhering to were utterly hollow, including things like adding “1,500 more titles to Comcast’s on-demand offerings for children.” Most of these show pony suggestions were suggested by Comcast because the company had already planned to accomplish them anyway as a matter of course, like expanding its broadband network to 400,000 additional homes.
Subsequent investigations found that Comcast violated the most meaningful conditions and was never held accountable for them, including promises not to meddle in the management of co-owned Hulu. And to reiterate, the company’s star NBC merger condition was so “successful” it resulted in public protests in the streets of Philadelphia. And indeed, numerous news outlets reported that Comcast’s failure to adhere to NBC Universal deal conditions played a major role in their rejection of the Time Warner Cable merger, causing regulators to even consider additional punishment beyond deal rejection. So yeah, factual information and all that.
After explaining this all to Comcast (again) I reminded the company I’m using the dictionary definition of the word lobbyist, and it may want to contact Random House and Merriam Webster with any future concerns. Still, I’m happy to use the powers of the Streisand effect and pen a blog post each and every time the company’s PR representatives feel like scolding me for semantic bullshit. There’s certainly a lot more to be said about the nation’s utterly pathetic lobbying rules that let most lobbyists like Cohen tap dance over, under, and around political influence reporting requirements.