On the television network that his company owns, Disney CEO Michael Eisner dismissed the idea that forbidding Disney subsidiary Miramax to distribute a controversial new documentary by Michael Moore was a form of censorship. "We informed both the agency that represented the film and all of our companies that we just didn't want to be in the middle of a politically-oriented film during an election year," he told ABC World News Tonight (5/5/04), referring to Moore's Fahrenheit 911, which examines the connections between the Bush family and the House of Saud that rules Saudi Arabia.
On its face, Eisner's statement will have a chilling effect. A major movie studio with an announced policy of only releasing apolitical films, in an election year or any other year, will discourage filmmakers from tackling important themes and impoverish the American political debate. (That Moore and Miramax were given advance warning of this policy hardly mitigates its censorious impact.)
But Eisner's statement cannot be taken at face value, because Disney, through its various subsidiaries, is one of the largest distributors of political, often highly partisan media content in the country--virtually all of it right-wing. Consider:
Almost all of Disney's major talk radio stations-- WABC in New York, WMAL in D.C., WLS in Chicago, WBAP in Dallas/Ft. Worth and KSFO in San Francisco--broadcast Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. Indeed, WABC is considered the home station for both of these shows, which promote an unremitting Republican political agenda. (Disney's KABC in L.A. carries Hannity, but has Bill O'Reilly instead of Limbaugh.) Disney's news/talk stations are dominated by a variety of other partisan Republican hosts, both local and national, including Laura Ingraham, Larry Elder and Matt Drudge.
Disney's Family Channel carries Pat Robertson's 700 Club, which routinely equates Christianity with Republican causes. After the September 11 attacks, Robertson's guest Jerry Falwell (9/13/01) blamed the attacks on those who "make God mad": "the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who try to secularize America." Robertson's response was, "I totally concur." It's hard to imagine that anything in Moore's film will be more controversial than that.
Disney's ABC News prominently features John Stossel, who, though not explicitly partisan, advocates for a conservative philosophy in almost all his work: "It is my job to explain the beauties of the free market," he has explained (Oregonian, 10/26/94). No journalist is allowed to advocate for a balancing point of view on ABC's news programs.
Given the considerable amount of right-wing material distributed by Disney, much of it openly promoting Republican candidates and issues, it's impossible to believe that Disney is preventing Miramax from distributing Fahrenheit 911 because, as a Disney executive told the New York Times (5/5/04), "It's not in the interest of any major corporation to be dragged into a highly charged partisan political battle." Disney, in fact, makes a great deal of money off of highly charged partisan political battles, although it generally provides access to only one side of the war.
So what is the real reason it won't distribute Moore's movie? The explanation that Moore's agent said he was offered by Eisner--that Disney was afraid of losing tax breaks from Florida Gov. Jeb Bush--is more persuasive than Eisner's obviously false public rationale. But more relevant may be Disney's financial involvement with a member of the same Saudi family whose connections to the Bush dynasty are investigated by Moore. Prince Al-Walid bin Talal, a billionaire investor who is a grandson of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd, became a major investor in Disney's Eurodisney theme park when it was in financial trouble, and may be asked to bail out the troubled project again.
It's not unprecedented for Disney to respond favorably to a political request from its Saudi business partner; when Disney's EPCOT Center planned to describe Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in an exhibit on Israeli culture, Al-Walid says that he had personally asked Eisner to intervene in the decision. That same week, Disney announced that the pavilion would not refer to Jerusalem as Israel's capital (BBC, 9/14/99).
Whatever the true motive of Disney's decision to reject Moore's film, it's not the one that Eisner and other company spokespersons are advancing in public. Journalists covering the issue should go beyond Disney's transparent PR stance and explore the real motivations involved.