Hogwash and the straight dope – Comcast and Edgartown


Our neighbor Brian Roberts of West Tisbury, the chief of Comcast, may have a hazy sense of the troubled negotiations continuing between the Island’s cable advisory board and his $43 billion company, for a new 10-year contract to provide cable TV services to the residents of Martha’s Vineyard. Among the many issues over which the negotiators are pawing and stomping is the unwillingness of Edgartown officials to endorse whatever deal may be struck, unless service to Chappaquiddick is provided for in its terms. Chappaquiddick is part of Edgartown and by extension part of Martha’s Vineyard, and the Edgartown selectmen are standing by the residents and taxpayers of the small island.

The notion that the chief executive knows everything that goes on in the hinterlands of his globe-girdling kingdom is nonsense, of course. How could he? But, the notion that he is responsible for everything is not nonsense. He is, and particularly when the abused are his neighbors.

Something he may not know about but is responsible for is the difference between hogwash and candor. Hogwash describes his company’s posture toward the Chappaquiddick service issue. Candor and directness characterize the posture of Pam Dolby, Edgartown’s administrator, who is trying her sawdust best to get a straight answer out of Comcast executives.

To help Mr. Roberts and all the rest of us understand the gulf between Comcast hot air and Dolby truth-telling, you will find at mvtimes.com a copy of an OpEd column, entitled “Comcast’s commitment to Martha’s Vineyard is stronger than ever,” written by Steve Hackley, a senior vice president of Comcast’s Greater Boston Region and published on March 15 in The Times, and a copy of a letter written March 6 by Ms. Dolby to Mary O’Keefe, senior manager of government/community relations for Comcast, based in Mashpee.

Here is an excerpt from Ms. Dolby’s letter, which we learned of after the Comcast OpEd appeared. She writes in part, “…we received a letter dated February 14, 2012, from Comcast, authored by Timothy Murnane, Regional Vice President of Government & Regulatory Affairs. In that letter Mr. Murnane refers to a meeting Comcast had with the Edgartown selectmen where Comcast proposed a cost-sharing plan with Chappaquiddick customers paying for a portion of construction of a more than two million dollar ($2,000,000.00) project and since that time Comcast has not received a formal response with respect to this proposal.

“First, let me say there was no formal proposal. On October 5, 2009, you came before the Edgartown board of selectmen to present an update on the feasibility of wiring Chappaquiddick for cable. The discussion centered on numbers of customers, setting up a committee of Chappaquiddick residents to address the issue, and who would pay the cost of construction. You left the meeting saying you would look into these issues. There was no written, formal proposal put before the board of selectmen.”

Ms. Dolby’s letter is dated March 6. Above the excerpt quoted here, she describes her frustration in her dealings with Comcast executives.

Mr. Hackley’s OpEd column was published about a week after Ms. Dolby’s letter. Comcast had proposed an OpEd column more than two weeks before March 15, but it was not furnished by them until just before the deadline for the March 15 edition of The Times. One wonders how it can have taken them nearly three weeks to concoct as vacuous a statement as was ultimately published.

Was there a proposal, or was there not? Mr. Hackley writes, “We think most observers would agree that a $2 million capital investment for this build out is financially questionable. Nevertheless, in view of the strong opinions expressed, Comcast’s latest offer to the board of selectmen does provide several options to the selectmen for a build out of Chappaquiddick. These types of options are quite common, and we have successfully worked with other communities facing similar desires and challenges, enabling us to serve additional homes we wouldn’t otherwise have been able to connect to our network. So, at this point, it is essentially a matter of allocation of resources, and the decision whether to allocate the capital dollars available to a build out of Chappaquiddick or to other pressing Island concerns is up to the selectmen.”

Nervous Comcast executives were vigilant, and late on March 14, when the OpEd first appeared on mvtimes.com, they wanted to know if there was an editorial or other reaction to it to be expected. There wasn’t, because I generally like to give controversial views an unmolested chance to make a first impression. I did tell the caller that more details of the offer described in the OpEd essay would have leant weight to the assurance expressed in what was a singularly unpersuasive headline.

Here are the chief hogwash hallmarks featured in the Comcast OpEd. Mr. Hackley refers to his company’s “latest offer” doubtless hoping to counter Ms. Dolby’s declaration that there was no offer, only discussion. The jury finds Mr. Hackley’s reference incredible, lacking as it does any details as to what was in his company’s offer and would make this “financially questionable” undertaking doable.

Mr. Hackley said that Comcast has been successful before, in cooperation with potential customers and communities, in overcoming challenges like those faced by Edgartown and Chappaquiddick. Without such cooperation, Mr. Hackley writes, Comcast “wouldn’t otherwise have been able to connect [such customers] to our network.” So, they’ve done it before successfully. Why not outline the terms under which they’ve previously overcome such adversity? And, by the way, it is certainly possible for Comcast, given its financial wherewithal, to do what Edgartown asks, if it chooses to.

And, Mr. Hackley adds, that the “decision whether to allocate the capital dollars available to a build out of Chappaquiddick or to other pressing Island concerns is up to the selectmen.” Because he offers no details of what he says was Comcast’s offer, he leaves out of his expression of Comcast’s commitment to the Vineyard that, in fact, the resources he is talking about may be Edgartown’s resources, in whole or in part, not Comcast’s.

Mr. Hackley hopes his OpEd will help Islanders understand the issue. He’ll be disappointed. What helps is Ms. Dolby’s letter.