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Lawmakers divided over whether NBC-Comcast merger would aid diversity

Lawmakers are increasingly divided on whether Comcast's proposed acquisition of NBC Universal would help or harm the amount of diversity in the media.

The proposed merger has drawn scrutiny from competing media companies and advocacy groups who fear the deal would concentrate too much control over media ownership and distribution in the hands of one firm. Lawmakers, especially those representing districts with significant minority populations, have increasingly found themselves choosing sides in the debate.

Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) recently added his name to the list of minority lawmakers backing the transaction; in a letter to the Federal Communications Commission dated Oct. 21, Rush argues Comcast's diversity commitments, including a pledge to add ten minority-owned cable networks, would benefit minority businesses and media representation.

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"I believe that this transaction will promote localism, competition and diversity, which are at the heart of the Commission's public interest analysis," Rush said in the letter that urged the FCC to approve the merger before the end of the year. The television industry has consistently been among Rush's biggest financial supporters, and Comcast has contributed $5,500 to his reelection campaign this cycle.

Rush's comments stand in contrast to concerns recently expressed by Reps. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Bob Filner (D-Calif.). In a letter sent to the FCC earlier this month, Filner, who represents a district where a majority of residents are minorities, said many of his constituents are concerned about the merger because of Comcast's well-documented lobbying efforts in support of it. Filner called for additional public hearings on the transaction, noting only FCC member Michael Copps attended the July hearing in Chicago.

"In light of this large-scale effort, it is vitally important to ensure that government does its due diligence before determining whether the merger should receive approval," Filner said.

Both firms have responded to the criticisms by pledging to increase diversity in the areas of media ownership, programming, employment and management, though Waters called those commitments insufficient and overly vague. NBC in particular is known for being a leader in hiring minorities for its television division; the company has a series of programs designed to increase diversity among TV writers, actors, producers and executives.

Comcast has cited numerous letters from minority community organizations and leaders as evidence there is broad support for the transaction, though critics have argued many of those groups have expressed support only after previously receiving financial contributions from Comcast. Comcast has acknowledged asking community organizations it works with to write in support of the merger, arguing such organizations are best positioned to offer judgment on the company's commitment to diversity.

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In his letter, Rush also took a shot at former FCC chairman Kevin Martin, who is now a partner at Patton Boggs and is representing opponents of the merger. Rush accused Martin of neglecting diversity during his tenure as chairman under President George W. Bush.

"I am aware that a former chairman of the Commission, who during his leadership of the agency did virtually nothing to advance minority ownership opportunities in media or to diversify media voices and content, is currently organizing opposition to the proposed transaction," Rush said.

"Based on his record, I view his intentions as being highly suspect and lacking in credibility, and that the Commission should closely scrutinize the information put before it by all interested parties to fulfill its critical public interest responsibilities."

In a statement, Martin said he was surprised by Rush's comments. 

"We worked closely together on the XM Sirius merger where he advocated a minority set aside, like minorities are hoping for in the Comcast-NBC merger. Indeed today, while Comcast serves many communities that have large African American populations, Comcast carries virtually no African American-owned independent programmers."

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