Philadelphia activists pushing for Comcast to step up its contributions to the city - and especially to its underfunded schools and unconnected poor - got a gift this week from the cable and Internet giant: evidence that Comcast has turned to questionable tactics to sway opinion as the company seeks renewal of its citywide 15-year cable franchises.
The apparent transgression: a "push poll," a not-really-a-survey that aims to mold public opinion rather than just measure it.
Comcast denied using the tactic, which is especially controversial in the political world. But Hannah Jane Sassaman, of West Philadelphia's Media Mobilizing Project, says she has mathematical evidence, on top of reports about the poll's leading questions.
What are the odds, she asks, that a random public-opinion survey, which would typically target no more than about 1,000 people, would by chance hit two members of the band of activists she has marshaled to demand that Comcast pay up?
Chris Rabb, a Temple University media and business scholar and East Mount Airy Democratic committeeman, was one of the two. He joined Sassaman at a rally Thursday outside City Council's chambers, where about two dozen people held signs bearing messages such as "Comcast: Pay Your Fair Share to Our Schools" and "We Need Affordable Internet."
Sassaman's group has been pushing for Comcast to make payments to replace the school taxes it escapes because of abatements on properties such as its JFK Boulevard headquarters tower. Rabb was among several speakers who echoed that theme, and also called for Comcast to expand Internet discounts and subsidize technology education in city schools.
"Comcast makes enough money to eat these costs, and still make that much more money," he said. "In fact, they can maximize shareholder value and be a good anchor institution in the city that they chose."
Rabb said the survey call began with fairly neutral questions about service quality, then "became increasingly biased, a la 'When did you stop beating your wife?' "
"When the question was, 'Do you think it's a good thing that Comcast employs more than 8,000 people in the city of Philadelphia?' how is someone supposed to respond?"
Eric Rosso, political director for Pennsylvania Working Families, a progressive advocacy group, reported receiving a similar call Sunday.
"They asked how I liked it that they provide Internet service for 43,000 low-income individuals. I responded by saying that's a good thing, but there's a 28 percent poverty rate in the city and 1.5 million residents. So in context, 43,000 is a drop in the bucket," he said.
Comcast spokesman Jeff Alexander pushed back against the criticism.
"This is in no way a push poll," he said by e-mail. "We do surveys like these all the time here and in different markets to understand what's important to local residents and customers."
Alexander said Comcast had "not yet decided whether we'll publish any results" from the poll. But he said the survey would give the company "an opportunity to find out more about what's important" to the city and its residents.
He declined to say how many people were being surveyed - a number that's considered indicative of a push poll. Push-poll surveyers typically call many more people than a random opinion survey because the goal is to influence as many people as possible.
Rabb said the last questions he heard centered on a theme that city officials were demanding more corporate support - the implication was too much, he says - for services such as low-income Internet access. As Rabb put it, the message was that "the city wants us to take on this expense. Are you willing to pay for it" - perhaps as much as $5 or $7 a month?
"I said no, my answer is I don't want to pay that surcharge, because you're a hugely profitable Philadelphia corporation," he said. "You don't really need to charge us, because you already overcharge us."