Comcast Recruits Watchdog

Apr 5, 2004  •  Post A Comment

In a behind-the-scenes effort to fight potential opposition to its proposed acquisition of The Walt Disney Co., cable TV giant Comcast has hired Sam Simon, a Washington watchdog group veteran, to help promote the company’s cause in the public interest community.
Under the unusual arrangement, Mr. Simon, who is chairman of the phone industry watchdog Telecommunications Research and Action Center, has been setting up meetings between Comcast executives and his watchdog group colleagues. One of the pitches at the sessions, according to a source, is that a Comcast acquisition of Disney would be good news for the Disney brand.
Some watchdog group representatives are crying foul at what they see as an effort to head off potential political opposition to a Disney deal.
“Comcast is trying to pull a fast one with public interest groups,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy-a group that has made no secret of its vehement opposition to the proposed merger. “By hiring public interest types, they hope to weaken the resolve to fight this deal,” he said.
But in an interview last week, Mr. Simon offered no apologies for Comcast retaining his services through Issue Dynamics, a separate firm that Mr. Simon heads.
“[Comcast wants] to have positive relations with an array of groups,” Mr. Simon said. “I think that’s enormously positive for corporations and public interest groups.”
Mr. Simon declined to disclose how much Comcast is paying IDI. But he said IDI’s role as industry liaison is to arrange meetings for Joe Waz, Comcast’s VP of external affairs and public policy.
Mr. Simon confirmed that as of last week, IDI had successfully arranged meetings for Mr. Waz with representatives of the Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ and Common Cause-sessions the watchdog veteran described as stops on a “listening tour.”
“[Mr.] Waz argued that a Comcast merger would be good for consumers, giving Comcast the resources it needs to better serve the public interest,” said Mary Boyle, a spokesperson for Common Cause. “We remain unpersuaded of this argument and told them we would continue to oppose the merger.”
A Comcast spokesperson said the primary reason they hired IDI was to monitor Internet chat rooms that mention Comcast. The spokesperson said meetings with public interest group representatives are not limited to the Disney acquisition. “This is an opportunity to find out who we are,” the spokesperson said. “It’s Comcast’s culture to reach out.”
Mr. Simon, formerly a lawyer for consumer advocate and presidential candidate Ralph Nader, said he doesn’t see a conflict between his dual roles as watchdog and consultant.
“We build bridges between public interest groups and corporations and facilitate conversations,” Mr. Simon said. “It’s good for consumer groups to talk to corporations.”