Comcast in middle of Oregon fight over taxes and censorship

Comcast in middle of Oregon fight over taxes and censorship
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Comcast has blocked versions of an advertisement backing a hike in Oregon’s corporate tax, which the cable giant opposes, from appearing on its video-on-demand service.

The versions that raised red flags specifically mention Comcast as one of the out-of-state corporations that would have to pay higher taxes as a result of Measure 97, which would raise income taxes on corporations across the state.

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New versions of all three advertisements initially flagged by Comcast are back on air and do not mention the cable giant, but the initial decision has rankled supporters of the tax.

“It’s ridiculous. I’ve never experienced anything like this. It’s very unusual,” John Coghlan, the consultant who bough ads for the measure, told The Hill. 

Coghland received an email from Comcast that the ads wouldn’t be allowed after he made the purchase on Comcast’s video-on-demand service.

“The spot was flagged on our end and placed on HOLD while we escalate it for review for compliance with our guidelines,” the Comcast representative told Coghlan.

Coghlan said the guidelines were never made available to the campaign.

Comcast has donated $465,000 to the campaign against Measure 97. In a statement, the company said it is concerned about the impacts the measure will have, “like so many job creators in Oregon.”

Sena Fitzmaurice, a Comcast spokeswoman, said the company had received cease-and-desist letters from both supporters and opponents of Measure 97, which required them to request additional substantiation from both sides backing up the claims made in those advertisements.

“A few ads from ‘Yes on 97’ included Comcast’s logo, which the Comcast Spotlight Account Executive asked them to remove,” Fitzmaurice said in an email. “The advertiser provided revised spots, which are currently airing.”

Both the new and old ad feature a local brewery owner who supports the higher tax.

“As if running a small business isn’t tough enough, turns out I’m paying a higher tax rate than large out-of-state corporations like Comcast,” brewery owner Rob Cohen says in the initial version of the ad. 

In the new version, Cohen states: “Turns out, I’m paying a higher tax rate than large out-of-state corporations.”

Another version swaps out Comcast’s name with Wells Fargo, the San Francisco-based bank.

Comcast has no obligation to air advertisements from supporters of a ballot measure, legal experts said. While television broadcasters must provide equal access to candidates, they face no such requirements for outside groups that back issues or candidates. Companies that operate cable networks face even fewer restrictions.

Comcast “has every right” to deny a ballot measure committee’s ads, said Robert Drechsel, director of the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Journalism Ethics. “There really isn’t any law that I can think of or regulation that would in any way prohibit that.”

“When you subscribe to cable, you’re in control. You don’t have to take it, but if you do, you take what the cable system offers,” Drechsel added. “Whereas in broadcast, the public owns the airwaves, and therefore the broadcasters act as stewards for the public interest.”

Experienced television buyers say some television stations occasionally flag advertisements that use footage from rival stations, though most ultimately relent.

The video-on-demand service — used by customers who want to watch a show after it has aired — reach a relatively small number of viewers. The pro-97 ads that mention Comcast have run on other Oregon cable and network providers.

The fight with an out-of-state corporation could even prove valuable to tax hike supporters.

The Yes on 97 campaign has cast their battle with Comcast as a fight against censorship.

“This is a clear and unprecedented act of censorship by Comcast in Oregon,” campaign spokesman Shamus Lynsky said.

The feud has earned Measure 97 supporters favorable stories on KGW-TV and Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Fitzmaurice said Comcast’s guidelines for advertisements the company will and won’t accept are confidential, but she said those guidelines are nothing unusual.

“We always work with our advertisers to revise spots, as needed, to ensure compliance with our guidelines, which are consistent with industry standards,” Fitzmaurice said.

Measure 97 would increase taxes on corporations that generate more than $25 million in sales in a given year. Oregon’s corporate tax rate is among the lowest in the nation; the Secretary of State’s office estimates Measure 97 would raise $3 billion in new revenue from corporate entities.

Liberal groups and unions back the tax hike. Most business groups, including local chambers of commerce and industry alliances, oppose the measure. Supporters have raised almost $7.5 million, while opponents have pulled in more than $17.5 million so far, according to records filed with the Secretary of State’s office.