Rep. Bobby Rush slams Comcast over Byron Allen lawsuit

1st District Congressman not happy with nation’s largest cable company

In a huge broadside against one of the country’s biggest cable operators, Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) slammed Comcast for their role in a lawsuit involving one of the nation’s most successful African-American media entrepreneurs and may lead the company to be broken up.

In a letter to Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, Rush criticized the company for challenging a court decision to reinstate a suit against Comcast for discrimination, particularly Byron Allen’s Entertainment Studios as the case against the cable company is being heard at the U.S. Supreme Court this Tuesday.

Comcast is asking the court to throw out the case and possibly amend the “section 1891” provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, passed after the Civil War to protect the rights of newly freed slaves. It states “All persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall have the same right in every State and Territory to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, give evidence, and to the full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of persons and property as is enjoyed by white citizens, and shall be subject to like punishment, pains, penalties, taxes, licenses, and exactions of every kind, and to no other.”

Using Allen’s lawsuit against Comcast, the Justice Department wants to tighten the rules regarding section 1981, though Comcast stated they were not seeking to roll back civil rights laws.

And this is what has Rush riled up.

“It is evident to me,” Rush wrote in his letter to Mr. Roberts, “that with this demonstration of corporate greed, Comcast has forfeited and repudiated its claim to be an inclusive company that is a friend of the black community.” Rush further slammed Comcast calling them “cold, callous, arrogant, and insensitive to African-Americans” and since the Trump administration is backing Comcast in the suit, he points out it’s an assault on minorities’ rights. He goes on to say “Simply put, it is my belief that the Comcast Corporation needs to be broken up.”

Trump’s support is odd (to some), considering his continued criticism of NBC News, among others calling them “fake news”. Comcast is the parent of NBCUniversal.

Byron Allen, head of Entertainment Studios. (Variety)

Rush represents much of Chicago’s South Side (including the area of where this writer lives) and several south suburbs including Evergreen Park, Blue Island, Frankfort, and Oak Forest where Comcast is the dominant provider – though in Chicago proper, customers can also choose between WOW and RCN in some areas. There are an estimated 1.5 million Comcast customers in the Chicago area, branded as Xfinity.

This is not the first time the veteran congressman has called out a media company: back in 2011, he and other African-American leaders ripped into CBS-owned WBBM-TV after the local station maliciously edited video on the station’s morning newscast featuring a 4-year old wanting to join a gang when he really wanted to go fight criminals. The network and its O&O station were once targets of a boycott by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Operation PUSH in 1985 after WBBM demoted African-American anchor Harry Porterfield. Ratings for the station plunged and never recovered, even to this day.

Comcast has been under fire from Rush and other African-American lawmakers, leaders, and activists for their role in the lawsuit keeping Allen’s cable networks off Comcast. The channels (available on DirecTV) include Pets.tv, Cars.tv, Comedy.tv and Justice.tv. After starting his company with little money in the mid-1990s, A former stand-up comedian who got his big break on The Tonight Show leading to a hosting job on NBC’s Real People, Allen’s company has grown into a powerhouse and is one of the biggest independent studios in the country. First formed as a syndicator, Entertainment Studios distributes numerous shows, with Funny You Should Ask and Comics Unleashed the highest-profiled.

Comcast has defended their business practices and their commitment to serving diverse audiences, noting Allen decided not to join Comcast’s MOU process, bringing four African-American owned cable networks to their lineups. However, most of those channels appear on Comcast’s upper-tiers, generally are the most expensive. And the company settled a lawsuit with African-American workers in 2016 over hostile working conditions in their facility in the Pullman neighborhood, totaling $7.2 million.

The case could have implications beyond the television business. Should the Supreme Court side with Comcast, it could have the potential to affect the way African-Americans and other minorities sue companies for discrimination. The outcome also could launch a revolt against Comcast given much of Chicago’s South Side (especially in Rush’s district) and south suburbs are African-American – which could hurt the company as more and more residents are “cutting the cord” for streaming services. But this could be debatable, given Comcast also sells broadband service.

While a breakup of Comcast is possible – Congress doesn’t have the power to do so though they can hold hearings among other actions (which led up to the breakup of the original AT&T) and reveal how their business practices work. While Trump’s Justice Department can help Comcast fend off this lawsuit, it’s the court of public opinion – especially among African-Americans that could affect them the most and wind up with the absolute worst PR disaster imaginable.

Just ask CBS and WBBM-TV.

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