Reel Grrls is a small, Seattle-based organization that teaches media production to mostly teenage girls. They offer workshops in animation, cinematography, and video production. Their short documentaries have been screened widely at progressive film festivals in recent years and won some awards. And the group, like many other nonprofits doing media activism, has a corporate sponsor. In this case, it's Comcast.
That fact made headlines last week after a Comcast executive lashed out over a tweet the organization sent out criticizing FCC Commissioner Meredith Atwell Baker's leap from regulating the company to lobbying on its behalf.
The offensive tweet:
"OMG! @FCC Commissioner Baker voted 2 approve Comcast/NBC merger & is now lving FCC for A JOB AT COMCAST?!?http://su.pr/1trT4z #mediajustice"
Steve Kipp, a vice president of communications for Comcast in Lynnwood, Wash., disliked Reel Grrls' online critique of Baker, so fired off an email telling the group that it had lost $18,000 in funding for a summer film camp. "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," Kipp wrote. "I cannot in good conscience continue to provide you with funding--especially when there are so many other deserving nonprofits in town."
Controversy followed. On Thursday, Comcast spokesperson Sena Fitzmaurice issued an apology, saying that the organization's funding is not in jeopardy and that Comcast would like to "sincerely apologize for the unauthorized action of our employee," according to the Washington Post. "This is not the way Comcast behaves toward its nonprofit partners."
Comcast has insisted the episode is the result of one rogue communications exec acting in haste and poor judgement. But it's an apt illustration of the concern media justice advocates have voiced about telecom firms--that they have too much power and have proven themselves willing to abuse it. It's also brought to the surface a host of perennially difficult questions for struggling community groups. How do you remain true to your politics while accepting (and seeking) funding from a corporation with politics that are at odds with yours? How do you bite the hand that feeds you?
We took the conversation to Malory Graham, executive director of Reel Grrls, which has kept right on biting Comcast.
On the complexities of corporate philanthropy:
That's been really interesting for us, the issue of corporate philanthropy. Because on one side we've had a great relationship with the corporate philanthropy arm of Comcast here locally. They've spent four years funding a program that was really good that allowed us to have girls to have summer jobs making videos for nonprofits. And we would hope that there would be a firewall between corporate philanthropy and the national headquarters wanting to squash free speech. I think it's a very complex thing that corporations need to spend a little but more time developing policies around.
... I do feel like they took the opportunity to say that this was an unauthorized email from one employee. I absolutely think it's more corporate policy. We're skeptical about this one day of media attention on our little organization changing Comcast. I really do think it's much more systemic.
On Reel Grrls speaking up in the past:
We had a really seminal piece in 2008 where a bunch of our girls went to the FCC hearing here in Seattle and then made a whole piece called "Generation of Consolidation." And that piece gained a lot of national attention and exposure, went to a bunch of film festivals. So it's a natural continuation of our work. This is clearly a good opportunity to bring it into the mainstream media forefront again.
The email was the threat to pull funding. It was more than a threat. The email basically said, "We're done." We were kind of negotiation for them funding the summer program again, and it was based on a four-year relationship. So we were just assuming it was gonna be standard as usual.
On what happens next:
We are currently scrambling to figure out how we're going to respond. We've just been really thrilled that there's been an outpouring of support from a lot of different areas wanting us to go forward with the summer program even without Comcast's support. I think because this issue has really come to the forefront, as a media literacy organization we really have to respond to that. So we are actually thinking of having the entire summer program--hiring 15 girls--to really explore the issue of specifically the [Comcast] merger as well as just overall issues of free speech.
I think we're wanting to be true to us being a youth media organization. So we're really working locally with our girls. They did their initial video, their first response to Comcast, so we can expect a response, too, which would be along the lines of "Comcast, you wanna get back together again but we don't know if we can trust you." And also just really figuring how we wanna seize the opportunity to bring more attention to the issue, because we really do feel like we're not an isolated incident. We would love to make sure that the FCC [approving the] merger is really forefront in people's minds. Our small example is a way to bring national attention back to that issue.