On August 26th of last year, David L. Cohen, a Comcast Executive Vice President, joyously announced that the cable giant’s controversial proposed merger with Time Warner had generated a frenzy of supportive letters to the Federal Communications Commission from nearly 70 mayors and dozens of other state and local officials. In particular, Cohen singled out a letter from one of the country’s most high-profile mayors.
“We’re proud to have the support of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who praised Comcast’s acclaimed Internet Essentials program and the increased investment and faster Internet speeds that the transaction will bring in his letter,” Cohen wrote, referring partly to Comcast’s discounted services for low-income customers. Emanuel’s letter, submitted to federal regulators just days before, was indeed glowing. The mayor asserted his belief that the proposed merger would not reduce consumer choice or drive up prices (a primary concern of the proposal’s critics), before launching into breathless praise of the company’s charitable activity in Chicago.
“Comcast currently makes considerable contributions in Chicago,” Emanuel writes, “and we expect those contributions to continue—and increase—if the proposed combination is approved.”
The authorship of Emanuel’s letter, however, may be more complex than meets the eye. Before Emanuel wrote to federal regulators, Comcast appears to have furnished the mayor with some writing assistance in the form of suggested language—and perhaps even a whole first draft—regarding his FCC letter. When The Nation submitted a FOIA request to his office requesting any records of suggested language or any Comcast-supplied draft, the mayor’s office responded that such a communication does indeed exist. It is refusing, however, to turn over the Comcast document, citing a state law that allows the withholding of preliminary drafts, suggestions, notes and communications in which opinions are expressed or actions or policies are formulated.
Emanuel’s office also would not respond to questions The Nation originally sent more than four weeks ago—and followed up on several times—that asked whether Comcast had helped draft Emanuel’s letter to the FCC. As long as this record is withheld, any definitive knowledge of the extent to which Emanuel’s letter used corporate lobbying language will likely remain a secret between the mayor’s office and Comcast. Emanuel is just days away from a hotly contested runoff election against progressive challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.
“It’s unfortunate that the mayor’s office is trying to avoid transparency,” said Todd O’Boyle, program director for Common Cause, a nonprofit organization that advocates for government accountability and opposes Comcast’s proposed merger. “FOIA laws should be serving the public interest—they should be vehicle to inform the public not a vehicle for politicians to find loopholes to hide the truth.”
In an investigation published in The Verge in January, I found a pattern of Comcast lobbyists ghostwriting highly customized letters for politicians across the country. In several cases, elected officials made few or no changes to the Comcast corporate PR documents before signing and submitting them to federal regulators on official government letterhead. In each instance, no effort was made to tell the public of Comcast’s role in authoring the letters. In one case, a former FCC official and heavyweight telecom attorney even put the finishing touches on a letter written by Comcast for a member of the town council in Jupiter, Florida.
Emanuel’s letter bears certain similarities to other letters to the FCC that were shown to have been ghostwritten by Comcast. His letter goes into detail about Comcast’s regional infrastructure investments, expresses confidence that the merger will only expand Comcast’s largess, cites the company’s Internet Essentials program by name and provides a detailed praise for its local charitable activity.
Neil Abercrombie, then Hawaii Governor, and Kate Brown, then Oregon’s Secretary of State and now governor, also submitted letters to the FCC in favor the Comcast merger—letters that Comcast had drafted. The cable giant had contributed to both politicians’ campaigns in the years preceding.
The company’s political coffers have been kind to Mayor Emanuel as well. After he sent his FCC letter in August, The International Business Times reported that Comcast and its employees had donated over $100,000 to Emanuel’s political activity, including $50,000 to his “mayoral campaign and his other municipal political organizations” in Chicago.
Comcast spokesperson Sena Fitzmaurice did not directly answer questions regarding the company’s role in authoring Emanuel’s letter to the FCC, but highlighted that Chicago is its largest success story in providing discounted internet access to low-income customers. “More low-income families in Chicago have broadband thanks to the active participation of CPS, nonprofits, and elected officials there—they’ve helped us drive a higher participation rate in Chicago than in any other city in the country,” Fitzmaurice said in an emailed statement.
Fitzmaurice also emphasized that, although the company had provided information to officials around the country who signaled interest in supporting the merger, those officials had final say in what they sent. “All filings are ultimately decided upon by the filers, not Comcast.”
Critics of Comcast’s proposed merger ague that, by giving the cable giant control over about half of America’s high-speed broadband connections, the plan would grant Comcast a dangerous degree of market leverage that could adversely affect prices. The American cable industry already lacks the sort of fierce competition that compels companies to lower prices and offer better customer service, and critics see the prospect of further market consolidation as a step in the wrong direction. The merger also affects cable television lines, and a coalition of business groups have banded together to oppose the merger, contending that Comcast’s market consolidation could give the company too much power over programming and advertising choices.
Comcast argues that its merger will give it an economy of scale that will allow it to ramp up infrastructure investments to improve cable connections. It also argues that the scale will grant the company a greater level of efficiency of operating costs—savings which would end up benefiting consumers.
Emanuel’s letter asserts that greater scale for Comcast will mean a better product for consumers in Chicago. “[W]e are optimistic that the increased resources of the combined corporation will lead to more investment in local network infrastructure and faster Internet speeds,” the letter states.
Garcia, a county commissioner who jolted the political scene in the February 24 mayoral election, has found broad support among Latino and progressive voters who particularly resent Emanuel’s overseeing of the closing of nearly fifty public schools and his aggressive attempts to restrict the power of the city’s teachers unions. Garcia has capitalized on the image of Emanuel as too enmeshed in the elite world of wealth and corporate interests to understand the struggles of everyday Chicagoans. Where Garcia might be strong on message, he’s been short on cash, having been reportedly outspent by Emanuel’s campaign war chest by a factor of 12 to 1 in the primary.
“This is about whether Chicago will be a city that is inclusive of all of its people,” Garcia told Democracy Now earlier this month, “or whether it will continue to work for a select few of rich and powerful people.”