I write this article from alumni weekend at Ithaca College, where I sit on the board of the Park Scholar Program at the Roy H. Park School of Communications. Disney chief executive Bob Iger graduated from this school in 1973, 35 years before I did. He periodically returns to address future media professionals, as he did last fall and in 2006, when I was a journalism major.
Iger is a role model for students at his alma mater, not to mention the top boss of journalists at ABC News and ESPN, both of which are owned by Disney. What he is modeling at the moment, however, is an attitude of contempt for a free press.
In retaliation against critical reporting, Disney has blacklisted the Los Angeles Times from a group of news outlets to which it offers advance screenings of films, to facilitate movie reviews. The Times published the following note to readers on Friday:
The annual Holiday Movie Sneaks section published by the Los Angeles Times typically includes features on movies from all major studios, reflecting the diversity of films Hollywood offers during the holidays, one of the busiest box-office periods of the year. 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. The Times will continue to review and cover Disney movies and programs when they are available to the public.
This was the key conclusion:
Over the last two decades or so, as Disney's annual profit has soared, the company has secured subsidies, incentives, rebates and protections from future taxes in Anaheim that, in aggregate, would be worth more than $1 billion, according to public policy experts who have reviewed deals between the company and the city.
The Times noted in its reporting that Disney “disputed the Times's estimates and analysis valuing Disney's Anaheim incentives at more than $1 billion, arguing that future benefits and protections to the company shouldn't be part of the calculation. . . . Disney also said that its investments far outweigh the value of the deals from Anaheim and that it is contributing more than its fair share, ‘despite what people with their own political agenda are insinuating.’ ”
This is a pretty standard gripe about unflattering coverage. Disney did not accuse the Times of anything illegal or unethical; it just didn't like the newspaper's math or its giving voice to city officials who contend that Anaheim has been too accommodating.
Acting as a watchdog, on guard for taxpayers, is a core function of news outlets such as the Times. Iger, of all people, ought to understand that. He doesn't have to like being watched, but responding with vengeance is a bad look for someone in his position.
And if Iger wanted the Times to include more of his perspective in its reporting, he might have agreed to be interviewed. Instead, he refused to speak with the paper's journalists.
More disheartening than Disney's withholding of advance movie screenings — which, on its own, is not the end of the world — is the thought that this kind of strong-arm tactic is indicative of how Iger would deal with the news media, were he to enter politics. Iger plans to step down from Disney in 2019 and has repeatedly declined (in the interviews he did grant) to rule out a White House bid in 2020.
A candidate with a television-radio degree from Ithaca, who has overseen major journalistic operations at the helm of Disney, might be expected to hold the fourth estate in considerably higher regard than, say, the current occupant of the Oval Office. But blacklisting a news outlet because of critical coverage is exactly what President Trump did when he was a candidate.
Iger's current posture is a bad omen.