Comcast Scrutinized After Racial Bias Hearing at Supreme Court

Comcast Center Headquarters Philadelphia - Getty - H 2018
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Is Byron Allen trying to win his racial discrimination lawsuit against Comcast before the U.S. Supreme Court even rules on whether it can proceed? It almost seems so.

On Nov. 13, the high court heard oral arguments in Comcast Corp. v. National Association of African American-Owned Media, et al. The dispute focuses on Allen's allegations that Comcast is violating the nation's old civil rights law by refusing to license the channels he owns. The justices are determining what needs to be alleged in a complaint for a discrimination lawsuit to proceed.

Even before the arrival of the Supreme Court opinion, African American business leaders and civil rights groups are taking shots at the company. The public parade of comments isn't likely to influence the justices. However, several of the commentators are nearly volunteering to be witnesses for Allen should the case proceed and the dispute isn't settled.

Take, for example, Sean "Diddy" Combs, who on Thursday took issue with his cameo in the case.

Somewhat misleadingly, he accused Comcast of mentioning him and his music-oriented channel Revolt as an example of its inclusive practices. More accurately, it was Allen's complaint that first questioned the "precise nature and extent of Combs’s ownership interest" in Revolt with the implication being that Combs was paid to whitewash Comcast's discrimination. At the Supreme Court hearing, Comcast challenged the plausibility of Allen's "theory of the complaint...that Comcast engaged in a racist plot with the Obama Administration, the oldest civil rights civil rights organizations in the country, Diddy, and Magic Johnson."

Combs may have been wrong about who had truly invoked him. Nevertheless, he has a larger point to make. He bemoans that Revolt isn't being as widely distributed as he wishes.

"Revolt has never been in a position to truly compete on a fair playing field because it has not received the economic and distribution support necessary for real economic inclusion," he says. "Our relationship with Comcast is the illusion of economic inclusion."

Comcast responded with its own statement, emphasizing that it was proud of its commitment to diversity.

Another potential witness in the case is Paula Madison, who was formerly the chief diversity officer of NBCUniversal before she retired in 2011 around the time of the Comcast merger. In a public statement made Friday, she suggests that Comcast is breaching the diversity commitments it once made to win support for the NBCU acquisition. In particular, she points to The Africa Channel, of which her family is the largest shareholder.

"Comcast assured the leaders of the NAACP, National Action Network and The National Urban League that Comcast would increase TAC's subscriber count from 2 million to 6 million, which for a small, independent cable network would have resulted in palpable economic boost," says Madison. "Although Comcast has not shut out TAC, Comcast has not been a good business partner. With an unkept — yet repeated — promise by Comcast of 4 million additional subscribers it's inaccurate to include TAC in any grouping of Black-owned independent networks which would typify the Comcast business relationship as good or in any way proactive."

Madison also says that she worked on the merger-era MOU (memorandum of understanding) with African American leaders and shared concerns with Comcast at the time that without guaranteed subscribers and revenue, "the African American networks would be positioned to fail."

A Comcast spokesperson responds, "We are proud to be The Africa Channel’s largest distributor, a commitment which is over a decade old, and pre-dates our acquisition of NBCUniversal. We have always met or exceeded our commitments to this channel. We’ve included the network’s content in tentpole on-demand events. To be successful industry wide, beyond the distribution and promotion by any one company, the responsibility to market and have a successful business plan belongs to the network."

In 2016, Allen's company tried to petition the FCC to investigate whether Comcast had failed to live up to diversity commitments. The media regulatory agency appears to have shrugged it off.

Now, Allen is rallying behind these statements of support. Meanwhile, groups like the NAACP have been drawing attention to the case as well. On the eve of the Supreme Court hearing, for instance, the group sponsored a tele-town hall with Democratic presidential candidates Cory Booker and Kamala Harris to discuss the implications of the case, the involvement of the Trump Administration, and how Comcast wished to "upend the critical Civil Rights Act and make it extremely difficult for black businesses and contractors to prove they have been a victim of discrimination."

Comcast dismisses "fears of broad implications" as being "put to rest" by what was stated at the Nov. 13 hearing. Right or wrong, and regardless of how the Supreme Court comes down, a certain kind of trial has already begun for the cable giant.