ABC News President David Westin has killed a story by the network's top investigative reporter on allegations involving Walt Disney Co., which owns ABC.
The "20/20" segment by Brian Ross grew out of an exclusive contract with the publisher of a new book alleging hiring and safety problems at Disney World. The authors, Peter and Rochelle Schweizer, had been given written assurances that ABC's corporate ownership would not pose a problem, and Regnery Publishing had delayed the publication date to accommodate ABC's schedule.
ABC spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said yesterday that the story "did not work" and disputed suggestions that the network was reluctant to criticize its parent company. "The fact that this particular story involved Disney was not the reason it did not make air," she said.
Sources familiar with the decision said that Westin shouted at Ross and his producer, Rhonda Schwartz, after reading the script, questioning whether they were "crazy." Other sources noted that several top ABC managers and executive producers agreed with Westin that the piece was editorially flawed.
While Murphy said a revised version might be broadcast in the future, Ross and Schwartz submitted a second draft in recent days, and that too was deemed unacceptable. "It's my understanding that the story is dead," said Peter Schweizer, a view now shared within ABC.
Schweizer, whom Ross had interviewed on camera for three hours in August, framed the question this way: "If this were a story about any other company in America, would there be this problem?"
"Disney: The Mouse Betrayed" alleges, among other things, that Disney World in Florida fails to perform security checks that would prevent the hiring of sex offenders, and has problems with peeping Toms. The book includes copies of sheriff's reports on alleged pedophiles. Its tone appears hostile to Disney, with such chapter titles as "The Lyin' King" and "Mickey Mouse Justice."
Disney spokesman Tom Deegan dismissed the book as "a hatchet job of the first order. . . . A compilation of half-truths, innuendos, claims and charges made by every enemy we ever seem to have aroused."
On June 29, ABC producer Schwartz signed a confidentiality agreement calling for the network to receive an advance manuscript for "the possible use of the book for a report on a news or public-affairs broadcast." That agreement expired Sept. 27.
During the same period, said Richard Vigilante, vice president of the conservative Regnery firm, a senior ABC executive sent him a letter saying "that ABC would follow all the normal standards and practices," as on any other story. The letter, from ABC Senior Vice President Richard Wald, also promised not to "convey any information about the investigation to the object of the investigation, in this case Disney," Vigilante recalled.
The ABC team conducted numerous interviews for the piece and submitted a taped report. Vigilante says Schwartz repeatedly told him that "20/20" was overscheduled and would air the piece soon, but that these explanations became less convincing after the program ran a segment about dogs on Prozac.
"One reason we went ahead, perhaps stupidly, is that ABC has always been great in the past," Vigilante said.
In a prepared statement, ABC's Murphy said: "We were looking into a possible story concerning theme parks, which would have included among others Disney. A draft story was submitted that did not work. This does not reflect badly on any reporter or producer involved. It's an inevitable part of the editorial process. Some further work is being done, but no decision has been made as to whether or when a story will air."
One source maintained that ABC management did not discuss concerns about the story with Disney officials.
Vigilante said his company has essentially given up on ABC and has begun discussions with CBS's "60 Minutes" about doing a report tied to the book. Sources familiar with the situation at ABC say there are considerable tensions between senior management and Ross, an award-winning reporter who pushed hard for the piece.
ABC has not shied away from reporting on Disney in the past. Last March, "20/20" aired a report that cited Disney among a group of American companies hiring workers for extraordinarily low wages on a Pacific island.
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