Comcast said it is pulling its funding and name sponsorship from the upcoming Walter Kaitz Foundation annual fundraising dinner, whose honorees include Mignon Clyburn, a Federal Communications Commission commissioner and the first African-American female to have been FCC chair. But Comcast says it will make an equal contribution to support the Kaitz Foundation and its work for minorities and women.
According to a copy of a letter to Walter Kaitz Foundation executive director David Porter, Comcast Foundation president Charisse Lillie said Comcast did not want either commissioner Clyburn or the foundation to "fall under a shadow as a result of our support for diversity in the cable industry."
As a result, Lillie said Comcast was "withdrawing our financial support for the annual Walter Kaitz Foundation Dinner (Sept. 17 in New York). We also request that there be no recognition of Comcast at the dinner."
The decision applies only to this year's dinner, but Comcast will review the decision in January, when it typically makes such sponsorship decisions.
The "shadow" was cast by stories raising questions about Comcast and Time Warner Cable's sponsorship of the Kaitz Dinner. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) blogged on Aug. 11 about the sponsorships, given that Clyburn would be helping decide whether the two companies could merge.
But Comcast isn't simply taking its money and running.
Lillie said Comcast didn't want to punish Kaitz or its important work, including support for National Association for Multi-ethnicity in Communications, Women in Cable Telecommunications and the Emma L. Bowen Foundation. "Consequently, consistent with our decades-long history of support for the work of the Kaitz Foundation and our industry-leading commitment to diversity, we will instead make an unrestricted contribution to Kaitz Foundation in the amount of $110,000 so that the Foundation can continue its important work."
In response to the initial stories about the contributions, both Comcast and Time Warner Cable pointed out their longstanding support of Kaitz diversity efforts.
"After 30 years of supporting the Walter Kaitz Foundation and their work to advance the contributions of women and multi-ethnic professionals in cable, we’re pleased to continue our support this year as we do every year at the annual Kaitz Dinner,” Time Warner Cable said in a statement before Comcast announced its decision to pull out of the dinner, which is the foundation's principal source of funds.
Comcast, too, has been supporting the dinner for decades, as well as the foundation, which is the umbrella organization to which cable operators, programmers and other related firms contribute their time, talents and money to support programs like Women in Cable & Telecommunications, NAMIC and the Emma L. Bowen Foundation.
The money raised from the dinner goes to support cable diversity initiatives. According to Comcast's running tally, since 2004, both Comcast and NBCUniversal have collectively contributed about a million dollars to the dinner, though even more through dues and other events, according to the company.
As to the suggestion that there was any quid pro quo this time around because of one of the honorees: "We absolutely dispute the notion that our contributions have anything to do with currying favor with Commissioner Clyburn or any honoree," a Comcast spokesperson said following the blog and initial stories. "Such claims are insulting and not supported by any evidence. We have supported the organization year in and year out regardless of who the dinner honorees have been."
As to why Comcast had not reported its dinner contribution, a point made in the CREW blog, "we haven’t made if for 2014 yet," said the spokesperson, adding that it probably did not have to be reported under lobbying guidelines anyway. "We do not control the event, we do not control the guest list for example or the invitees, and do not control who the honoree is," said the spokesperson.
Comcast is a premier sponsor of the Women in Cable & Telecommunications (WICT) Leadership Conference, also held annually in New York during Diversity Week, as is the Kaitz Dinner.
WICT President Maria Brennan was concerned about the precedent of the pullout and what prompted it, though she said she understood how Comcast might feel pressured to make the decision it did. "In the end, the Kaitz Dinner supports diversity organizations like WICT," she said, which is trying to level the playing field for women.
"These kinds of stories aren't giving a holistic view, and organizations like mine are going to suffer for it," she said. "The real individuals who suffer are people of color and women in the field."
She said the connection between Comcast/TWC and the dinner may seem like a story on the surface, but only if you omit "the decades of commitment that these companies have had to diversity."
She also pointed out that Comcast commits to the leadership dinner sponsorship a year in advance. "So it's not like they are picking and choosing on who is able to take the podium for our event. They committed to the event long before we ever released the speakers," which WICT did Thursday. Clyburn is not on it.