Ryan Blethen / Times editorial columnist
Real Grrls' real-world lesson in free speech
Reel Grrls students got a real-world lesson on the dangers of media consolidation. They took the opportunity to express themselves and their right to free speech.
Times editorial page editor
Such is the world we live in that a benign tweet from a small nonprofit in the Central District would anger, then embarrass, arguably the most powerful media corporation in the United States.
The written word still matters, whether it is on 224-year-old parchment or pecked out on a keyboard in 140 characters. Words matter as proved by Reel Grrls, the small operation in Seattle's CD that teaches girls about video production and media literacy.
Earlier this month, Meredith Attwell Baker announced she was leaving the Federal Communications Commission after her term expires in June to head up NBC Universal's lobby shop in Washington, D.C. The response to Baker's announcement was swift and furious because only four months prior she was one of the FCC commissioners who voted to approve the merger of Comcast and NBC Universal.
So how does an operation with five employees and a mission to get more girls behind the camera get the attention of Comcast, which was wallowing in a sea of condemnation?
A tweet from Lila Kitaeff, Reel Grrls' technical director, is all it took. The offending tweet caught the attention of Steve Kipp, a local vice president for communications at Comcast. He sent Reel Grrls Executive Director Malory Graham an email saying he was "shocked that your organization is slamming us on Twitter."
Expressing shock was not enough. Kipp then wrote that, "I cannot in good conscience continue to provide you with funding — especially when there are so many other deserving nonprofits in town."
A brutal response given the mild criticism of the tweet, which read: "OMG! @FCC Commissioner Baker voted 2 approve Comcast/NBC merger & is now lving FCC for A JOB AT COMCAST?!?"
A fair critique of the situation but hardly a slamming worth pulling the $18,000 Comcast promised in support of Reel Grrls' summer program.
When Graham did not hear back from Kipp for two days after leaving him a message, she went public with the email. Calls immediately came in from The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. KIRO-TV and KOMO-TV showed up at Reel Grrls. Maybe not so surprising: KING-TV, the NBC affiliate, stayed away.
Reel Grrls was now part of a national story. A Comcast spokesperson quickly said the corporation would still fund the summer program.
At this point, the Twitter tale became really interesting.
"This was clearly a learning moment and a teaching moment for us," Graham said in an interview. She said that Comcast's actions demonstrated how fragile free speech can be. "You have to suddenly evaluate everything you are doing."
Reel Grrls thanked Comcast for their past support and offer of future support and turned down the money. OMG is right!
Not only would they not be taking Comcast's money, Graham said the summer program would now examine free speech and press issues.
The girls are not waiting for summer. They have already posted a sharp 41-second video on their website, http://www.reelgrrls.org/, about the Comcast tweet.
What a great lesson for the girls of Reel Grrls. They experienced firsthand what a concentrated media means for freedom of expression. They were taught about the consequences of speaking truth to power. Most important, they were taught about the power of their voice and the impact of their words and visuals.
Reel Grrls has been around for 10 years. In that time, its students have been invited to film festivals all over the world and gone on to attend prestigious film schools. Because of the program's re-evaluation of subjects to focus on, there might be another place a Reel Grrl pops up someday.
"We look forward to seeing a Reel Grrl accept an Academy Award," Kitaeff said. "But it would be great to see one on the FCC."
Ryan Blethen's column appears on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is: email@example.com
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