A Washington-based think tank pressed Comcast’s corporate leadership Wednesday morning on its refusal to air advertisements for gun manufacturers and refusal to answer inquiries into how it protects itself against charges of libel.
The National Center for Public Policy Research sent two representatives to Comcast’s shareholder meeting in Philadelphia on Wednesday morning. David Ridenour, president of the National Center, and Justin Danhof, general counsel, both posed questions to Comcast CEO Brian Roberts related to the media giant’s liberal bias.
Comcast is the majority owner of NBC Universal, which owns NBC and MSNBC.
Ridenour pressed Roberts on why Comcast refused to tell its shareholders how it protects itself against charges of libel. Ridenour’s inquiry came after one of MSNBC’s hosts, Rachel Maddow, accused Ridenour’s wife, Amy, and the National Center of committing a federal crime—an accusation the Ridenours say is libelous.
Maddow alleged last year that the National Center bribed politicians by giving them gifts. Specifically, she said former lobbyist Jack Abramoff funneled money from his corporate clients to members of Congress through the National Center. Amy Ridenour is chairman of the National Center for Public Policy Research.
"It’s not correct. That would be a felony," Amy Ridenour said.
She submitted a shareholder resolution that would have required Comcast to issue a report revealing its media outlets’ fact-checking procedures. Fact-checking is the primary way Comcast would avoid libel lawsuits that could cost Comcast and its shareholders millions of dollars, Ridenour said.
"Rather than doing the report, which would have been easy, they hired a law firm to fight it," Amy said.
David Ridenour asked Roberts directly about Comcast’s fact-checking procedures at the shareholder meeting.
"Mr. Roberts, shareholders have a right to know that your management team has good systems in place to minimize the risk of expensive libel suits, so I am asking you here now to publicly answer this question: What exactly are the systems in place to prevent libel exposure?" Ridenour asked.
The exchange between him and Roberts was "heated and terse," Ridenour said.
Roberts first said Comcast is legally obligated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) not to interfere with its media outlets’ standards, a statement Ridenour questioned.
Comcast voluntarily agreed not to interfere with its affiliates’ reporting on Comcast itself, but there is no rule preventing Comcast from requiring stronger fact-checking standards, Ridenour said after the meeting.
Any agreement the CEO makes that cedes so much authority over his own company would be "absolutely insane," Ridenour said.
After further questioning, Roberts then asserted that his news outlets have very good editorial standards.
"If you have the procedures, why aren't shareholders allowed to see them?" Ridenour asked.
Comcast then turned his microphone off. Roberts did not answer the question, Ridenour said.
Ridenour and Danhof met with David Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast, after the meeting. Cohen said he would look into the case.
Ridenour expressed concern over the ethical standards of Comcast’s media outlets.
"They don’t seem to be concerned at all about whether they are behaving ethically," he said. He noted that MSNBC did not bother to call the National Center for Public Policy Research before accusing them of breaking the law. Calling for fair comment is part of good journalistic ethics, Ridenour said.
Comcast, NBC News, and Rachel Maddow’s publicist did not return a request for comment on this story.
Amy Ridenour said she has not ruled out a lawsuit against Comcast, MSNBC, and Maddow, although she said that she thought asking about the issue at the shareholder meeting would be more effective.
Danhof also asked about Comcast’s decision not to allow any advertisements for guns or ammunition on any of their networks while simultaneously allowing violent programming to continue to air.
"Why does Comcast’s management believe it is appropriate for Comcast to profit from the excessive glorification of gun violence but not appropriate for gun shops to advertise legal firearms and ammunition to people who overwhelmingly use firearms in a lawful and safe manner, including in self-defense?" Danhof asked.
Roberts laughed dismissively as Danhof was asking the question, according to the National Center’s summary of the meeting and then asserted that Comcast will not change its position.
"Well, Justin, that’s just your opinion," Roberts said, according to Danhof.
Gun crime has dropped dramatically over the past two decades, Danhof said, pointing to a Los Angeles Times article. Nevertheless, people think that gun crime has risen, in large part to the media’s excessive and biased coverage of it, Danhof contended.
"When conservatives talk about media bias, they have to talk about what it really does," Danhof said. "They are changing the perceptions of reality."
Many hosts from Comcast’s liberal news outlet MSNBC have met with President Barack Obama in the past about the policy issues facing the country.
Comcast as a whole has strongly supported Obama, and its leadership has strong ties to the administration.
Comcast employees gave much more strongly to Barack Obama than Mitt Romney in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. They also donated significantly more to Democrats than Republicans over the past three election cycles.
Cohen, who promised Ridenour he would look into National Center’s accusations against MSNBC, has also been a major supporter of Barack Obama’s campaigns.
He pledged to bundle over $500,000—the highest recorded category—in the 2012 campaign, and he donated to both Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns and subsequent inaugural funds, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Cohen also hosted a fundraiser for President Obama in 2011 at his home in Philadelphia. Attendees pledged to give at least $10,000 to the president’s reelection campaign. The Washington Post called Cohen "a longtime Democratic operative" when reporting on the fundraiser.
Cohen is not the only big-money supporter of President Obama at Comcast. Jeff Shell, chairman of NBC Universal International, pledged to bundle between $200,000 and $500,000 for the president’s reelection campaign.
Comcast’s support for Obama has won NBC Universal’s shows coveted appearances from the first family.
Obama introduced the movie To Kill a Mockingbird on USA Network, part of NBC’s family of networks. First Lady Michelle Obama has made several cameo appearances on NBC shows, including The Biggest Loser.
Comcast is not the first company the National Center has questioned at shareholder meetings. The National Center plans to attend 30 shareholder meetings this year. It has been involved in shareholder activism since 2009.