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Comcast makes rare public relations misstep in Baker hire

Comcast Corp. was masterful when it pushed its acquisition of NBCUniversal through regulators and lawmakers.

The cable giant successfully argued that a combination of the nation’s largest cable and broadband provider with a content behemoth whose holdings include a movie studio, a broadcast network and numerous cable channels was no real threat to competition to other programmers and distributors despite lots of opposition from consumer advocacy groups, the creative community and even a few members of Congress.

Baker While there were lots of conditions put on Comcast by the Federal Communications Commission and Justice Department in return for approval, most were ones that Comcast itself advocated. Like the kid who tells his parent how he should be disciplined, Comcast came to Washington with a list of what it would agree to do if the deal was approved and the FCC and Congress basically said that sounded good to them and signed off on the merger.

That’s why Comcast’s recent stumble in the hiring of FCC Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker as a lobbyist is so surprising.  Did Comcast not think there would be any blowback to hiring a regulator who just four months earlier voted to approve its purchase of control of NBCUniversal?

Baker is hardly the first government official to go to work for a company or industry that she has regulated. It happens all the time. Just a few weeks before the Baker hire, Michael Powell, a former FCC chairman, became the cable industry's chief lobbyist.

More recently, former Sen. Chris Dodd has now gone to work for Hollywood as head of the Motion Picture Assn. of America.

But, ideally there is a little bit of a waiting period before one goes from lawmaker to lobbyist. By jumping to Comcast so soon after voting to approve its merger with NBCUniversal, Baker raised eyebrows and gave those already wary about the intersection of government and business more to be cynical about.

Perhaps 20 years ago such a move would not have generated as much heat. But today in the digital age, the grumblings of media watchdogs extend far beyond the Beltway and a few throwaway lines in a trade publication. Within days, the New York Times was editorializing against the Baker hire and even Jon Stewart took what is a pretty inside baseball story and did it a biting segment against Comcast and Baker on “The Daily Show.”

All the negative attention has led to U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, to also start poking around in the hire.

Comcast hasn't helped the situation either. Last week, in a public relations blunder, an executive at one of its company's cable systems in Washington state said it was going to cut funding for a nonprofit group it had supported called Reel Grrls after the organization said something negative about the Baker hire on Twitter.

Comcast's D.C. team quickly moved to clean up that mess, calling the actions of the employee out of line and “not the way Comcast behaves towards its nonprofit partners," but the damage was already done as the company provided its critics with new material for attacks.

Reel Grrls passed on the mea culpa from Comcast and now said it wants to focus on developing films about “free press issues” and will no longer partner with Comcast on its summer camp.

Baker and Comcast would have been better served if she parked herself at some law firm that the cable giant keeps on retainer for a few years before joining the company. At least then it would have reduced the grumblings that there was a quid pro quo here. While there is nothing to indicate that Baker was hired in return for voting in favor of Comcast, that’s the perception the move has given a lot of people inside and outside the nation’s capital. And in Washington, it’s all about perception.

-- Joe Flint

RELATED:

Comcast taps FCC Commissioner Baker for senior D.C. post

Photo: FCC Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker. Credit: FCC.

 
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