Put Eisner on the Council on Foreign Relations

Miller and Ferguson

Put Eisner on the Council on Foreign Relations

Miller and Ferguson

Put Eisner on the Council on Foreign Relations
New books dissected over email.
Oct. 16 1998 10:52 AM

Miller and Ferguson

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Mark,

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Okay, I'll get sober, too, and address your points. If I was "jeering," it's because I fear that the idea that media combines--and Disney with its sugar-coat in particular--pose a threat to our way of life is to me so exaggerated that I instinctively smile. But I'll wipe that off.

First, a clarification: The "lazy reporting" reference was not necessarily to the universe of Disney coverage, but to the kid-gloves or even promotional press given (nationally, at least) to Walt Disney World. To an extent, that has now been pierced. Yes, I suspect the stories will peter out after a bit--that is the nature of most news coverage. And yes, few stories will put whatever transpires in Orlando into a larger context of Disney duplicity.

Not many journalists get out of bed each day intent on revealing the whole grand media scheme. That's why we have book authors and pundits like you. (And I'm glad you're out there, and yes, it's a shame that conflicts of interests among the owners make it harder to find a publisher or forum ... but good work will out. There are more hungry venues all the time. They're not all ABC, I grant you, but as Disney must admit, ABC isn't ABC.)

Now, you want me to acknowledge your indictment of Walt Disney the man. I haven't read enough to judge, but let me stipulate he was not the icon he's held out to be. But he's dead, Mark. His studio and his company are now run by people very unlike himself. Most seem to be liberals politically and many are Jewish. So what? Institutions change, you recognize it and go on. Am I wrong, or is it you and the social conservatives who are hung up (for different reasons) on how Walt was doing things?

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As for the Schweizers' (Regnery) book, you somewhat mischaracterize it. It is primarily about the sex crimes and other problems around the park, right. But it's secondarily about how Disney's power covers stuff up. Clearly, that's in line with your worries. And the authors do (opportunistically) get into Disney's contentions with labor--the Disney Co. today, not Walt Disney decades ago. Which is more pertinent?

Next, the Philip Morris business with ABC. The tobacco companies are bruisers, we know, and they and their lawyers can intimidate (see also CBS). Let's stipulate that because Disney was buying CapCities it didn't want to lose the Kraft ads. Well, whoever owned CapCities would have the same fear. You could argue that the more broadly-based the broadcaster's parent, the more easily it could stand up to Big Tobacco. And what better company to position itself against smoking than one that cultivates a squeaky-clean image? In the event, Disney apparently didn't pick that fight. You wanted Eisner to write about why. If he was involved, that would have been interesting, I agree.

But that brings us to Eisner's apparent insularity. He's focused on jockeying with Tom Murphy for CapCities. Maybe Philip Morris was on the table and it serves his interest to keep that out of his triumphal tale. But he sure is not the sort to get into the question of cigarettes and the commonweal, just as he ignores the cultural issues raised by the right and left. It's not that he avoids all controversy: He deals directly with the Katzenberg and Ovitz matters, and he embarrasses Martin Davis just as surely as any Anson book. It's just that his life--insofar as he's willing to share it with us--revolves around the negotiation, the project, the profit. The rest is family time, and he apparently is a solid citizen there.

We can wish for more--indeed, the New York Times on Oct. 4 billed him as a modern Medici for his corporate patronage of architecture and the arts, so maybe there is more--but he doesn't seem comfortable outside of his milieu. Here is the head of the world's second largest media company and he is not--just for instance--a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. I'm told that he dreads long travel, not just the small-plane trips he bemoans in his book. His stomping grounds are limited to Hollywood, New York, the parks, and Aspen. His book is about the first three.

Your disappointment with Work in Progress is that it won't grapple with the larger issues of Big Media and the culture and economy. If it's neither in Eisner's interest nor nature to do so, you will have to debate an empty chair. My view: The record is mixed. It all comes down to the integrity of an organization. Dow Jones is now aligned with NBC (General Electric). It still does damn good reporting. Maybe the question is not global but local: Is each respective media outfit doing its job?

Good luck to you in holding feet to that fire. Just remember what Eisner writes, in regard to the grave matter of gay dancing at Disneyland: "There are times when it pays to lighten up."

Tim

 

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Mark Crispin Miller is professor of media studies at New York University and author of Seeing Through Movies. Tim Ferguson is an assistant managing editor of Forbes magazine. He is based in Los Angeles. This week they discuss Work in Progress, by Michael Eisner with Tony Schwartz (Random House; 464 pages; $27.95).