Disney vs. DeSantis

Listen to this episode

S1: Hey, everyone, quick note of disclosure. The story ahead is about the Walt Disney Company and their relationship with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. You should know, I was employed by Disney and ABC. Still have a few retirement accounts with them. All right. On with the show. You can tell a lot about somebody’s politics by listening to the way they describe this new legislation that was passed in Florida last month. If you’re a Republican, you might be calling it the parental rights in education law. And if you’re not, you’re probably calling it something else.

Advertisement

S2: Most people do know it as the don’t say gay bill. And boy, that has just angered the sponsors and the governor.

S1: Mary Ellen Klas covers state politics for the Miami Herald. Well, I mean, seems like to me like it was kind of a masterstroke of progressive activists.

S2: To label it that it was a brilliant it was a brilliant way to take control of the messaging. The original bill definitely prohibited speech, and that’s how it got its name, and then they changed it.

S1: What was signed into law does prohibit instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation for younger kids. It also empowers parents to sue public schools and teachers that they think cross an ethical line when it comes to topics of sex and gender. Unfortunately, that ethical line is pretty murky right now.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: There’s already a lawsuit against this, by the way. You know, there may be an injunction before we know it, and this bill may be just sort of done.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: I think calling this bill Don’t say gay is a progressive masterstroke because that label challenges you to pick a side, even if picking a side is anathema to you. In Florida, there’s one company in particular that likes to avoid picking sides, or at least publicly. Disney. Disney employs 80,000 people in Florida. And until now, it’s been pretty easy for the Magic Kingdom to keep itself a little separate.

S2: I would say in the history of Disney in Florida, which extends almost 60 years, it’s been a pretty hands off relationship.

Advertisement

S1: But Governor Ron DeSantis, his Republican Party, has decided to end this hands off approach. Mary Ellen says it all started when DeSantis challenged vaccine requirements for Disney employees. And now this so-called don’t say gay bill has become a new kind of test. When he signed it into law. DeSantis found a way to thumb his nose at Disney at the same time.

S3: I don’t care what corporate media outlets say. I don’t care what Hollywood says. I don’t care what big corporations say. Here I stand. I’m not backing down.

S2: There is this new dynamic now, which is Disney is perceived by Florida politicians as being far too liberal and progressive and trying to impose its politics on Florida.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Is this a rocky patch in the Florida Disney relationship or more like a full blown crisis?

S2: That’s a really good question. I think that Disney’s, you know, chief executive officer came out saying that it regrets not pushing harder and lobbying harder against the bill when it was in when it was passed a month ago. However, their lobbyists were aware of it, and it’s pretty clear that they could have done more. So the question is, why didn’t they? And and we still don’t have that answer.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Today on the show, why is Governor Ron DeSantis picking a fight with the Walt Disney Company? And will Disney fight back? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to What Next? Stick around. The new Florida law limiting school instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity. The so called don’t say gay bill. It’s inspired copycat legislation in several other states. It’s angered LGBTQ Floridians and galvanized conservatives. But I really started paying attention when the Walt Disney Corporation got involved in a tiresome culture. War bloomed into a larger conflict between Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and the Disney Corporation. Last month, Disney had this shareholder call, and CEO Bob Chapek spoke about his disappointment that the don’t say gay bill had sailed through the legislature.

Advertisement

S4: Now, we were opposed to the bill from the outset, but we chose not to take a public position on it because we thought we could be more effective working behind the scenes. But despite weeks of effort, we were ultimately unsuccessful.

S2: That’s when we first got a glimpse. The Disney executive staff was starting to realize that perhaps they should have pushed farther than they had in opposing this legislation. But then they announced something that we really haven’t heard too many large corporations in Florida do. And he said that the company was going to, quote, reassess its political giving in Florida and beyond.

S4: I understand our original approach, no matter how well-intended, didn’t quite get the job done.

Advertisement

S1: Huh?

S2: But were it almost as if he was saying, okay, you can’t have it both ways, we’re not going to keep giving you money. At the same time, you are promoting policies that we think are wrong for our staff and audience.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: I think it would be useful if you could just lay out exactly how much Disney does give to someone like Ron DeSantis. Because my understanding is that Disney gave significantly to Ron DeSantis and many of the other legislators who are involved in this bill. Is that right?

S2: Yes. By our calculations, Disney has given Ron DeSantis political committee about $100,000 in campaign contributions. That is not an enormous amount. There are some companies who have given in the millions. The governor has raised about $75 million for his re-election efforts. So $100,000 in one chunk is not enormous. But that’s a lot of money still. They’ve also donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the legislature, and that’s just in the last two years. So they are a big player. But, you know, I wouldn’t say they’re the biggest, but they have been a reliable source of money for Republicans. No one has ever doubted that Disney wasn’t going to contribute in large amounts. And of course, when a corporation wants something special from the legislature, they make sure that they, you know, raise the stakes even higher and give them even more. So it’s possible they just haven’t needed much from the legislature right now. And that’s why these contributions are high, but not enormous.

Advertisement

S1: I feel like that call was like the beginning of this. No good, very bad month for Disney. Like just day after day after the CEO spoke to his employees. There were, you know, employees starting a Web site called Where is Chapek dot com where they were, you know, sort of laying out how here’s how you protest what’s going on at Disney right now. There were employees walking out today.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Dozens of Disney employees walked off the job.

S1: Were you surprised by how quickly this all happened?

S2: Yeah, I have to say, I was surprised. And part of the reason is this bill didn’t just come out of the shadows. It didn’t just happen last minute in the legislative session. It got hours and hours of hearings. This bill is not intended to out gay children. This bill is intended to strengthen the family unit.

Advertisement

S4: Treating conversations about them or their lifestyle like something dangerous that should be banned or even not discussed is deeply prejudicial.

S2: And in the process, the bill was modified slightly, not enormously. But the original discussion of the bill was, was that a teacher couldn’t mention sexual orientation or gender identity at all, and that’s how it got its name. Don’t say gay. They limited that to grades kindergarten through third grade. So I think Disney employees and executive staff were obviously aware that this bill was being discussed, if they were concerned. About it. So the fact that this mounting opposition happened after the bill was passed, it sort of raised again the question of, you know, if Disney has clout. Where were they?

Advertisement

S1: Yeah, I mean, it might be worth laying out to like why this hits so hard potentially for Disney employees. Like in the nineties, Disney was one of the first major corporations to offer health coverage for living partners of gay and lesbian employees. So it’s been out there as a corporate ally as these things go. Do you think that’s why it felt like such a turnaround for a bill like this to move forward and for Disney to not really get involved?

S2: Well, Disney has had a role in changing legislation behind the scenes pretty effectively in the past. And the irony is we have a very good example just from last year. So the idea that, yes, they have had a policy of being very supportive of their LGBTQ employees and they didn’t do anything. You know, that that is a surprise. The work they did last year was was to produce a carve out to a bill aimed at when a lot of conservative Republicans were barred on social media, including the former president. The Florida legislature and the governor signed a bill that banned that activity, that prohibited that activity on social media accounts. But because Disney has Disney plus and they felt that that ban could apply to their viewers reviews and things on their on their website, they got a carve out that said that any company that has a theme park, their platforms, their social media platforms and websites, this won’t apply. Well, that bill was put on hold by a court in part because the judge said this law is not applying evenly across the board because you’ve got this carve out for these theme parks.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: So it would have restricted how much a platform could get rid of speech. It didn’t like basically from users.

S2: Yes, that’s right.

S1: Interesting.

S2: But the irony is it was the governor’s staff that helped Disney get the carve out. So at the same time, we’ve got this governor cracking down on Disney this year. It was his very staff that was willing to go the extra mile to help Disney last year.

S1: What’s interesting there is that that situation, it hits a little closer to Disney’s bottom line than this situation. This don’t say gay bill is about what happens in schools. It’s not about what happens in theme parks. It’s not going to directly impact the company.

S2: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. Yeah.

S1: I’m curious if you think this legislation hit differently in Florida than it did other places. Disney, it’s headquartered in California. That’s been a little bit of a tension with Florida. So have there been protests against this bill at the park or are the angry employees mostly outside of your state?

S2: It’s a mixed bag. It’s my understanding. You know, there have been protests at the parks in Florida. However, you know, there’s there’s communities around it that are very conservative. And there’s a perception within those these conservative groups. And it’s this is what the governor’s tapped into. The governor’s actually used the term sexualizing our children.

S3: If you are out protesting this bill, you are by definition, putting yourself in favor of injecting sexual instruction to five, six and seven year old kids.

S2: As if being aware of gender identity is something that is, in his words, making children focused on sex and sexuality.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: I think people need to get out of their bubble and actually talk to parents in this state because they do not want this in kindergarten or first grade or second grade. We want our kids to be.

S2: It’s our understanding that, you know, first of all, this is not was never taught in kindergarten through third grade anyway. It wasn’t there to begin with. But now we’re banning it just in case. But it’s the fear of this problem. People who live in red read communities. This is something they’re afraid of.

S1: We’ll be right back. I’ve read that the thing that really turned Ron DeSantis against Disney in this case was that in that call with shareholders a month ago, the CEO of Disney used the words Don’t say gay when he described this legislation and it ticked DeSantis off. Is that true? Do we know that?

S2: I don’t know if that’s true. I will tell you that this is a fascinating dynamic because the governor’s office and all the Republicans who have supported this legislation have been very upset that it’s been identified and labeled as a don’t say gay bill, because when you read the bill, there is nothing in it that uses the word gay.

S3: Tucker The word gay is not in the legislation, right? So they say it’s banning a word that literally isn’t even in the legislation. It’s not even like they’re misrepresenting the way the words used. It’s not even used in the bill. It’s a it’s a fake narrative. It’s a lie. But it’s a lie because they have to lie because if they admitted what they were really for, sexualising kindergartners and first graders, they know that would not fly with the public.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: From what I’ve seen of the bill, it’s remarkably vague. Is that your impression as well?

S2: I think it’s intentionally vague. And because it’s vague, people don’t know what they can say and what they can’t say. So they don’t say it at all.

S3: What the law does, in effect, is make schools less safe for marginalized minoritized students who already are saying that they don’t find schools to be safe.

S1: It also contributes to the stigma that there’s something wrong with the child’s parents or with the child identifies as.

S4: I think if children are not feeling that they are accepted or who they are and the family they come from isn’t accepted, it will have an impact on them.

S2: It’s what the bill doesn’t say and it’s going to be on teachers themselves to police what they say. And many believe that will have a very chilling effect.

S1: Because they’re worried they might mess around and find out where some parent says, you said something and it upsets me and I’m going to sue.

S2: Exactly. Because there is the enforcement power for unhappy parents with grievances.

S1: Which brings us back to Disney and its relationship to Florida. Since the 1960s, Disney World has operated as its own little fiefdom, known as a special improvement district.

S2: The legislature gave them the go ahead, and it was basically giving this improvement district all the authority of a county. The only thing that it had to do that was similar to other counties is that it had to pay property taxes. And it had to. It had to have its elevators inspected by the state. Every everything else, it could create its own police force, its own emergency responders, its own zoning laws. It could do everything on its own, under its own terms.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: But after Disney’s CEO put Governor DeSantis on blast, Mary Ellen started noticing that Conservative backbenchers in the state legislature were making noises about repealing the special improvement district as a way of hitting Disney where it hurts in Florida.

S2: What we started hearing is the support among politicians all across the state who maybe were a little less willing to criticize Disney in the past. We’re kind of jumping on the bandwagon a bit. Now, that’s not coming from the the leadership and the people that need to raise all the money for the next election cycle. It’s coming from more rank and file members of the legislature, but it’s still there. They started to support and amplify Ron DeSantis criticism of Disney, and somehow that became a safe place to be.

S1: Is it actually that easy for Florida to unlock itself from Disney?

S2: No. It’s so tethered to the the whole structure of tourism in this giant part of the state. Penalising them in this way would just create, I think, chaos. I think their goal here is to silence Disney, just like they want to silence teachers from telling their students that kids can have parents of the same gender.

S1: You know, whenever we talk about Ron DeSantis, the background noise, the conversation is that he is probably running for president in 2024. And I’m wondering if knowing that. Changes it all. How you think about what’s happened over the last month between Disney and DeSantis? Like does it offer lessons for corporations going into 24? Or like how how we think about DeSantis as a politician.

S2: I think that is a really astute question, because one of the tactics that Governor DeSantis and his his team media team uses is one of preemption.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: What do you mean when you say that?

S2: Well, they tried to make an example of someone or something as a warning to others. You don’t want to do this or we might treat you this way. They’ve done that with the media. They’ve done that with individual reporters. They’ve done that with corporations. And they’ve done that with outspoken individuals. And so if you’re at all timid about being thrown into the ring and spat on by the many people that they’ve agitated, then you may think twice about speaking up against a policy. It’s kind of like a bully.

S1: Yeah. I mean, one lobbyist told MSNBC Disney doesn’t seem to know how to handle DeSantis. And I thought about that. Given everything that you’re saying. And I also couldn’t help but notice that, you know, there are other big entertainment industries in Florida, including Universal Studios. And we haven’t seen them stand up alongside Disney and say, oh, we agree like this. This is not okay. And to me. That makes Dizzy’s position a little bit weaker because they are the single person being held out. But if they had company, it might be easier for them to make the case.

S2: That’s right. Yeah. There’s power in numbers. And we haven’t seen too many people. We haven’t seen other corporations, let’s say, with similar stature, join Disney in support with them. So they are a little bit. Alone. Alone in the crowd and away from the crowd.

S1: Mary Ellen Klas, thank you so much for joining me.

S2: It’s my pleasure, Mary. Thank you.

S1: Mary Ellen Klas is a reporter over at The Miami Herald. All right. That’s the show. What next is produced by Carmel Delshad Mary Wilson and Alina Schwartz. We’re getting a little assist these days from Anna Rubanova and Laura Spencer. We are led by Alicia montgomery and our brand new executive producer, Joanne Levine. And I’m Mary Harris. I am taking a little spring break. So in the next few days, you’ll hear Seth Stevenson in this feed. Make sure you give him a warm welcome and I’ll be back here in just a few days.