Disney apparently thought it had a strong hand to play.
Shortly after the Los Angeles Times published an excellent series on the conglomerate’s dealings with the city of Anaheim — home to Disneyland — the newspaper’s critics found themselves barred from the company’s media sites. The corporate stiff-arm applied to about eight staffers at the entertainment/arts section of the Los Angeles Times. Inquiries from the newspaper to Disney seeking redress went unanswered. “We’ve been told that we will not be able to review or have any access to the filmmakers or the people who made those movies,” said Glenn Whipp, a staff writer at the paper.
That policy was in effect for more than a month, and the Los Angeles Times alerted readers last week to the problem: “This year, Walt Disney Co. studios declined to offer The Times advance screenings, citing what it called unfair coverage of its business ties with Anaheim,” reads part of a note to readers explaining why a sneak-peek holiday movie section had omitted Disney offerings.
For its part, Disney released a lengthy statement:
We regularly work with news organizations around the world that we don’t always agree with, but in this instance the L.A. Times showed a complete disregard for basic journalistic standards. Despite our sharing numerous indisputable facts with the reporter, several editors, and the publisher over many months, the Times moved forward with a biased and inaccurate series, wholly driven by a political agenda—so much so that the Orange County Register referred to the report as “a hit piece” with a “seemingly predetermined narrative.” We’ve had a long relationship with the L.A. Times, and we hope they will adhere to balanced reporting in the future.
Juxtapose that statement with a single line from the series: “Disney declined requests to interview company executives, including Chief Executive Robert Iger and Disneyland Resort President Michael Colglazier.”
Well: The Los Angeles Times has soldiered on without Disney’s blessings. Exclusion from Disney screenings, said a Los Angeles Times source last week, means that the newspaper would have to publish reviews “a day late,” not to mention under more time pressure. “Our critics are very capable of turning a story around in a day,” said the source.
An entire platoon of film critics lined up to politely decline Disney’s previews in light of its treatment of the Los Angeles Times. The backlash can be explained only by citing this tweet last Friday from the Erik Wemple Blog, a viral sensation that by Tuesday afternoon at 2:47 p.m. had racked up three retweets, 10 likes and no replies:
Actually: The outrage surged on Monday, when The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg (a colleague of mine here in the opinions section and not a newsroom-side film writer) wrote that she wouldn’t reap any competitive advantage over the Los Angeles Times, refusing to pre-review any Disney films or otherwise cover them prior to their release to the public. A Boston Globe critic, the AV Club and Flavorwire made similar commitments.
Then came Tuesday: Critics associations jumped in with a joint statement:
The key line from that statement bundles the Disney action with signals coming from the White House: “Disney’s actions … are antithetical to the principles of a free press and set a dangerous precedent in a time of already heightened hostility toward journalists.”
New York Times? Check! “The New York Times will not attend preview screenings of Disney films until access is restored to the Los Angeles Times. A powerful company punishing a news organization for a story they do not like is meant to have a chilling effect. This is a dangerous precedent and not at all in the public interest,” noted a spokesperson in a statement.
Disney, perhaps, was learning that access to its media sites and its talent isn’t what it supposed.
A.O. Scott, a chief film critic (there are two) for the New York Times, tells the Erik Wemple Blog that studios have in the past banned critics from film screenings. It’s the sort of unpleasantness that commonly results from disagreements over the scribblings of critics themselves. “The thing that’s striking here is this is an investigative series of reported stories on theme parks, real-estate taxes, the city council in Anaheim — things that don’t have a lot to do with film criticism or movies,” said Scott.
Just how important are pre-screenings to a film critic? They’re a “courtesy and a convenience,” said Scott, noting that they give him time make the reviews “as thoughtful and well written and solid as possible.” Which is to say, they’re not indispensable. Asked if the decision of the New York Times was unanimous, Scott responded, “I would say.”
With the all these big names saying “no, thanks,” Disney on Tuesday decided to stop its childish ways. “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,” Disney said in a statement. We asked the Los Angeles Times if it offered any concessions in those chats. Hillary Manning, a spokesperson for the newspaper, responded with this statement: “The Los Angeles Times has covered the Walt Disney Company since its founding, here in Los Angeles, in 1923. We look forward to reporting on Disney well into the future.”
The cascading display of journalistic solidarity sends a message to Disney and other prospective bullies: We media types sometimes do live up to the glorious principles that we mouth at panel discussions.