The Book Club

Michael Eisner, Launderer Extraordinaire

Dear Tim,

Yes, the far right does hate Disney, hates–fiercely–what they like to call “the media.” The right’s is, in fact, the only prevalent critique (if that’s the proper word) of Eisner, Levin, Bronfman et al. We hear it from, e.g., the Rev. Wildmon, the Catholic League and Accuracy in Media, just as we’ve often heard it from the likes of Gingrich, Limbaugh, Pat Buchanan, William Bennett, Robert Bork, Dan Quayle, Bob Dole, and Ollie North (it was also voiced frequently and heatedly, behind closed doors, by Richard Nixon).

The rightist diatribe is quite an old one, but not enlightening. Its overt argument is that “the media” have long since poisoned this fair land of ours with evil celebrations of good sex, drug use, unpatriotic sentiment, and “anti-family values” generally–and the tacit implication here is always that the villains of the piece are Jews. (Thus the rightist screed is not substantially unlike the propaganda churned out by the National Alliance–publishers of The Turner Diaries–and the Nation of Islam.) The gang at Regnery would never do a book attacking Jack Welch of GE, or (speaking of Microsoft) Bill Gates, or Michael Jordan of Westinghouse–or Rupert Murdoch, publisher of (on the one hand) Limbaugh, North, Bork, and Gingrich, and (on the other hand) Marilyn Manson and Howard Stern. (There’s a lot of bad faith among such huffy moralizers: William Bennett is a property of Viacom, along with MTV and Melrose Place and VH1.)

Now, there is a world of difference between that paranoid, reactionary propaganda, which calls for censorship, and the sort of economic argument that I and a few others have been making. But instead of going further into that distinction, let me (finally!) point out some of what is missing from this Work In Progress, since it will help to show where Eisner’s really coming from.

Take, first of all, the past: Like Disney’s Pocahontas, Eisner’s Work In Progress prettifies it. Speaking of anti-Semitism, there’s the author’s take on Walt himself–a line almost as funny as that story about Deepak Chopra: “I admired his creativity, his commitment to excellence, and his fierce independence from the other Hollywood studios.” Well, it sure was fierce. One day, when an employee told Walt that he was moving to Columbia, the boss snapped back in a ferocious Yiddish accent: “Okay, Davy Boy. Off you go to work with those Jews. It’s where you belong, with those Jews.” Walt did not just loathe his Jewish rivals, but would not hire Jews at Disney–a tradition relevant, perhaps, to Eisner’s late ascendance at the studio. (It has been said that Jeffrey Katzenberg was on the outs with Disney’s board, and finally was refused a larger role, in part because he struck that group as too …pushy, unlike the far more polished Eisner–who frequently tags Katzenberg as overly “aggressive.”)

But Eisner is (of course) completely mum on this whole fascinating subject–as he is on Walt’s impassioned rightist activism in the ‘50s, when, as a member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, the mogul not only red-baited his cartoonists (to bust their union) but did much diligent finking for J. Edgar Hoover. (You can read the whole enthralling tale in Marc Eliot’s Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince–if you can find a copy. The book was killed by Bantam–i.e., Bertelsmann–whose people were apparently afraid that it might jeopardize a recent partnership with Disney. It came out in 1993, from Birch Lane Press.)

Eisner is likewise silent on the infamous attack by Philip Morris on the ABC news show Day One, which had broadcast an accurate report on the tobacco company’s routine manipulations of the nicotine level in their cigarettes. Although the newsfolk were on solid ground, the network’s news division was abruptly forced to issue a retraction–which Philip Morris played up shamelessly in big ads everywhere (“APOLOGY ACCEPTED”). According to Frontline and other sources, that hasty and coercive settlement had everything to do with the impending merger between Disney and Cap Cities: Disney didn’t want the nuisance of a lingering lawsuit, nor did they want to alienate a major advertiser (Philip Morris owning Kraft Foods). Whatever the facts of the matter, it was a big deal at the time, but Eisner never mentions it.

Such tight discretion vis-a-vis the past is not too promising in someone who proposes to teach all of us the whole exciting “story” of American history–as Eisner wanted desperately to do with “Disney’s America,” until his plans were foiled by (as he tells it) some rich country-dwellers and a bunch of sour professors. Eisner skates past other tricky regions of the distant past (the CIA’s direct connection to Cap Cities, for example), but since it’s getting late I’ll move on, very briefly, to some controversies that are simpler and more recent.

Eisner says nothing about any of the flaps that have so irked his rightist critics: the one over Priest (a lousy film about a nice gay cleric), or the huge hoo-hah over ABC’s Ellen . Eisner is likewise silent on the subject of Kundun, Scorsese’s cine-hagiography of the Dalai Lama–even though (or rather, because) the film was most offensive to the Chinese government. In all these cases, Eisner could have boasted idealistically about the Disney record of defending artists’ First Amendment rights, etc., in the face of threatening noises from the U.S. right and Chinese leadership, et al.–except that Eisner, as the captain of a mammoth public company, is less concerned with celebrating constitutional ideals than he is with keeping everybody happy; and so he is in fact–like all his cohorts at the top–extremely timid, for all his boasts about “creative risk.”

And there have been instances of censorship that Eisner couldn’t boast about, since Disney was itself the censor, or suppressor: The progressive Texan Jim Hightower, who had been doing a witty and quite popular talk radio show on ABC, was let go shortly after Disney bought Cap Cities. Eisner doesn’t mention this fact either–although he does say just a little bit about the sort of radio he likes: “How could anyone not like a station that plays Celine Dion, Bart Simpson, and music from Mulan, all in one cycle?” (So much for “creative risk.”)

Well, those are some examples of significant omission–and I haven’t even gotten dressed yet! So let’s continue–and I’d like, if possible, for us to talk a little more about the insularity, as you put it, of Eisner’s world.