Deeper Dive—Is Comcast now working with conservative think tanks to astroturf muni broadband?

In 2014, the American Enterprise Institute was accused of working with Comcast to “astroturf” the net neutrality issue. (Home Depot)

Last week, Forbes contributor Rosyln Layton was fed up with what she saw as a lack of journalistic stridency in reports by FierceCable, DSL Reports, as well as numerous tech media publications, on a study (PDF) published by Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society concluding that municipal broadband was generally a better deal for consumers. 

In her January 19 column, Layton said our “rigor disappears when it comes to the pros and cons of municipal broadband. Indeed, many journalists consider the inherent superiority of government broadband as an article of faith. As a result, they pass off all materials promoting municipal networks as truth with little to no critique.”

Layton eviscerated the Berkman report as a “knock-off” of an older study conducted by the National America Foundation, one she said had been roundly criticized for factual errors.

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“It appears that Danielle Kiehl, who wrote the shoddy NAF report, believed it could be trotted out under a new banner at Berkman without garnering a critical review by the tech media, old wine in new bottles so to speak,” she wrote. 

Layton went on to accuse FierceCable of “blindly” accepting the Berkman study. She said we failed to report that its backers aren’t “quant” people (those trained in quantitative analysis?). And we didn’t note that study author David Talbot is a “journalist who heads the Municipal Fiber Initiative,” a project funded by the Open Society Foundations. The latter, Layton noted, was founded by Hungarian billionaire George Soros, a preeminent boogeyman for the far right these days. 

Layton also reached out directly to me via email. 

RELATED: Comcast-backed group spent $1M to fight Colorado town’s municipal broadband effort

“I am disappointed that your story is not more critical,” she told me. “The authors of the story are not quant people, and their data is bogus.”

As Layton noted in her column, I had written in May about a different study conducted out of the University of Pennsylvania’s Law School, which suggested that only two of the 20 municipal broadband projects studied generated enough money to cover project cost over a 61-to-65-year period.

My rigor had been pretty solid on that report. I noted that David L. Cohen, top barrister for muni broadband’s biggest enemy of all, Comcast, received his J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1977 and currently serves as chairman of the trustees for the school’s executive committee. I also noted that from Brian Roberts on down, many of Comcast’s top managers had degrees from U of Penn. 

The school later denied that Comcast had any influence over the study, which Layton called “rigorous” and “definitive” in her column. 

Certainly, it would have been fair—and easy enough—for me to also cite Berkman’s backers, which are made immediately transparent by the research body on a web page. Yeah, Soros’ Open Societies Foundation is listed, but so are a who’s who of top-level, very prominent research backers, including the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Google, Facebook, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the U.S. State Department. 

I don’t necessarily associate any of those groups with backing leftist technology propaganda, but the backing should have been noted just the same. My bad. 

But who, I wondered, is backing Layton? Well, her bio is as immediately transparent on the Forbes site as Berkman’s backers are. 

Turns out she’s an American academic, living in Denmark, serving as a visiting fellow at the Center for Internet, Communications and Technology Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. The Washington Post once declared the AEI as the Beltway’s “dominant conservative think tank.”

In 2014, the American Enterprise Institute was accused of working with Comcast to “astroturf” the net neutrality issue. At the time, fellows at the Institute were accused of printing and posting op-eds all throughout the media in support of killing net neutrality.

"They've spread a lot of money around town to a lot of places, just for moments like this,” Craig Aaron, president of consumer advocacy group Free Press, told The Washington Post in July 2014.

At the time, Comcast spokesperson Sena Fitzmaurice conceded to the paper that the cable operator “has worked with most of the major think tanks in town who are interested in communications issues," including the Aspen Institute, the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute. She didn't go into further detail.

I reached out to Fitzmaurice to see if she could provide any update on Comcast’s relationship with AEI. Is it now working with them on municipal broadband, an issue Comcast has stridently contested in markets including Seattle and Denver? I’m still waiting to hear back. 

For her part, Layton said Comcast didn’t influence her column.

“In fairness, I have little to no knowledge of AEI’s funders other than what is printed in our annual report,” Layton told me. “The primary donors are individuals whom I have never met. I am a contractor to AEI, and as I understand, my stipend comes from the general fund.”

It's all a reminder to us that when covering politically charged issues like this, we have to follow the money and stay vigilant. 

Deeper Dive is a new weekly column, appearing on Friday, offering more in-depth reporting on a story appearing earlier in the week on FierceCable.