As federal regulators intensify their review of the proposed $30 billion merger of Comcast and NBC Universal, the National Coalition of African American Owned Media has emerged as a prominent critic of the deal even though it was founded only a few months ago.
Underscoring its growing significance, the coalition's president testified against the merger in early June at a House Judiciary Committee field hearing in Los Angeles. Last week, the group co-signed a letter of opposition to the FCC and Justice Department alongside well-known advocacy groups, law firms and cable networks.
Playing a sizable behind-the-scenes role is former FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, who sparred frequently with Comcast when he ran the agency during the Bush administration. Critics claim Martin, who represents several opponents of the merger for Patton Boggs, Washington's largest lobbying firm, is using the coalition primarily as a vehicle to discredit Comcast and is less motivated by any desire to improve opportunities for minorities.
As evidence, they point to the coalition's scathing allegations and rhetoric, which far exceed what even the most critical groups of African Americans have said about the cable giant. The coalition has called for a boycott of Comcast and insists on its Web site that African Americans are no longer "interested in living on the Comcast plantation."
Martin's participation in an organization dedicated to fostering diversity in media also has raised eyebrows because as FCC chairman he was frequently criticized for espousing policies viewed as harmful to this cause.
"It is ironic, at best, to suggest that Kevin Martin is representing the interests of African Americans," said Payne Brown, who as corporate vice president of strategic initiatives at Comcast oversees the company's diversity strategy.
Two of the coalition's three principals -- Martin and Kristen Wells -- are with Patton Boggs. Further fueling suspicions about the coalition is Martin's client list: Bloomberg LP; Communications Workers of America; Fair Access to Content and Telecommunications Coalition, which represents rural telecom providers; and Wealth TV, all of whom oppose the Comcast-NBCU merger.
"NCAAOM is an independent client of Patton Boggs," said Rebecca Carr, the law firm's spokeswoman. "It has no relation to the clients you name." The coalition says it has partnered with several black organizations and has members in the entertainment and investor communities.
"To suggest that NCAAOM is anything but an independent, legitimate coalition advocating for diverse ownership in the media is totally false and not grounded in any specific facts," coalition president and CEO Stanley Washington said in an e-mail.
But CongressDaily has verified that the coalition's Internet site was registered by Dennis Hardison, general manager of Entertainment Studios, a broadcast syndication company run by black comedian Byron Allen. The L.A.-based firm entered into a distribution deal with Verizon Fios, a Comcast competitor, in 2008.
Wells has a background in foreign policy, while Washington was an executive for 16 years with American Express. His media-related job experience appears to be his work as a business operations manager for Time Warner Cable in Reston, Va.
Neither Carr nor Washington would provide details about the coalition's funding, its ties to Allen and the qualifications of its three principal figures.
Besides the unlikely connection to Kevin Martin, the coalition has ties to the watchdog group Free Press.
When Martin was FCC chairman, the group repeatedly accused him of promoting media concentration. It also has sharply criticized phone and cable giants for relying on "Astroturf" lobbying by corporate-backed advocacy groups that pass themselves off as grassroots organizations.
Free Press, the coalition and three other Martin clients were among the signatories on last week's letter.
"Because we sign onto letters with people does not mean that we agree wholesale with everything they do," said Free Press Policy Counsel Corie Wright, who asserted that the coalition's use of its material on its Web site is unauthorized. "I have no evidence that they're a front group."
There's widespread agreement in policy circles that more needs to be done to promote media diversity. A broad array of interests are worried that combining Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, with NBCU's programming empire, would mean fewer opportunities for independent producers and less choice on the dial.
In an interview, David Honig, president and executive director of the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, said that while both companies can and should do more, they have taken some positive steps.
While the coalition has helped put these issues in the spotlight, some are questioning whether it is making outrageous demands. At the Los Angeles hearing, for example, Washington demanded that Comcast add networks to its programming lineup that are 100 percent African American-owned.
The reality, experts said, is that few such networks exist. "I think it's a false argument," said Brown, the Comcast executive. He explained that for years, proponents of diversity in media ownership have urged venture capitalists to partner with minorities.
Comcast carries 11 networks that target the African-American community, including TV One, which it has a 33 percent stake in. The cable giant also offers additional content aimed at Asian and Hispanic viewers. If the merger is approved, it has pledged to add at least three networks "substantially owned" by minorities.
The National Action Network, headed by Rev. Al Sharpton, and the National Urban League, which receive financial support from Comcast, are among the merger's backers, while the Black Economic Council and a top executive with the NAACP have raised significant concerns.
This article appears in the July 3, 2010, edition of National Journal Daily.