Disney Flap Shows the Danger of Overaggression

Thom Weidlich 11.09.17


The Walt Disney Co. this past week cast itself in a horror film of its own making. The brouhaha demonstrates the downside of being overly combative in one’s crisis response, especially with the press. They say not to pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel (computer servers by the ton?) — in this case the Los Angeles Times. After a backlash, Disney reversed course.

The plot began on Friday, Nov. 3, when the L.A. Times explained to readers in a note why Disney movies weren’t included in its annual holiday roundup: The Burbank, California-based company had banned it from advance screenings because of a negative two-part series it published in September.

Those stories detailed the financial goodies, such as tax rebates, Disney allegedly receives from Anaheim, California — locus of its eponymous theme park.

Disney responded with its own statement in which it donned its (journalism) critic’s hat. It panned the report for displaying “a complete disregard for basic journalistic standards” and for being “a biased and inaccurate series, wholly driven by a political agenda.”

This was a tough stance to take with a newspaper, especially since the company reportedly didn’t ask for any corrections. Disney has long been willing to play rough with media outlets, according to The New York Times, but in this instance it may have overreached. The move said, essentially: If your reporting upsets us, we will punish you. That’s an attitude journalists don’t award two thumbs up, even journalists from the competition.

The reaction, which CNN called “an outpouring of solidarity,” was fast and fierce.

A number of writers, including The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg, and entertainment sites like Flavorwire and The A.V. Club said they would boycott Disney screenings until the company relented.

‘Powerful Company’

On Tuesday, The New York Times joined the protest. “A powerful company punishing a news organization for a story they do not like is meant to have a chilling effect,” it said. “This is a dangerous precedent and not at all in the public interest.”

That same day, four critics’ associations issued a joint statement decrying the ban on the Los Angeles paper. It got worse: “Furthermore, all four critics’ organizations have voted to disqualify Disney’s films from year-end awards consideration until said blackout is publicly rescinded,” they wrote.

In addition to making the company look petty, Disney’s crisis response drew attention to the L.A. Times’ Anaheim coverage that it otherwise wouldn’t have received. It’s hard to see what the upside to that was.

Finally, later on Tuesday, Disney yelled “cut!” It put out a one-sentence statement: “We’ve had productive discussions with the newly installed leadership at the Los Angeles Times regarding our specific concerns, and as a result, we’ve agreed to restore access to advance screenings for their film critics.” 

“Newly installed leadership” referred to the August shakeup when the L.A. Times fired several managers, including Davan Maharaj, who was replaced as publisher by a former Fox executive. Given that the personnel changes came before the series appeared, Disney’s explanation might be taken as pretext (the real reason for the turnabout just may have been to end the crisis).

The L.A. Times issued a final statement in which it noted that it has covered the company since its Los Angeles founding in 1923. “We look forward to reporting on Disney well into the future,” it said. It’s unclear whether that meant nice movie reviews or more pieces about Disney’s business practices.

Still, after this denouement, the audience applauded. The WashPost’s Rosenberg tweeted: “Update: all the critics who stood together in solidarity with @latimes just won a huge victory.”

And . . . FADE TO BLACK.

Photo Credit: The Walt Disney Co.

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