Commentary

Disney Ends Ban Of 'L.A. Times' Critics, Restoring Free Publicity

After a uncharacteristic show of solidarity among the nation’s critics and entertainment writers that threatened the efficacy of its formidable publicity machine, the Walt Disney Co. yesterday abruptly withdrew its ban of Los Angeles Times writers from preview screenings of Disney films.

Disney had enacted the policy in retaliation for Daniel Miller’s expose of a purportedly too-cozy financial relationship between Disney’s Disneyland and Disney California Adventure properties and the city of Anaheim, where they reside. 

“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,” Miller wrote in September.

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“Disney explained the [ban] in a statement, saying the Times had disregarded ‘basic journalistic standards,’” the AP reports.

“Among reporters who cover Disney, there’s a phrase: ‘Getting Zenia-ed.’ It means getting frozen out by Walt Disney Company chief communications officer Zenia Mucha,” writes Rebecca Keegan for Vanity Fair. “Until mid-day Tuesday, the Los Angeles Times was getting Zenia-ed: Disney had barred the newspaper from access to the company’s movies” over Miller’s story. 

“… The paper revealed the blackout November 3 to explain why its Thor: Ragnarok review would be late, and why its latest movie sneaks section would be free of Disney films,” Keegan continues.

“On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Boston Society of Film Critics and the National Society of Film Critics issued a joint statement saying they had voted to ‘disqualify Disney films from year-end awards consideration until said blackout is publicly rescinded.’ The New York Times announced that it would not attend preview screenings of Disney films until the Los Angeles Times was allowed to do the same,” reports Claire Atkinson for NBC News.

“‘A powerful company punishing a news organization for a story they do not like is meant to have a chilling effect,’ said a spokeswoman for the New York Times. ‘This is a dangerous precedent and not at all in the public interest,’” Atkinson continues.

“A continued boycott by critics groups and other show business organizations could have had widespread consequences for Disney during awards season. Disney's contenders include its live-action ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,’ animated films ‘Cars 3’ and ‘Coco,’ and the upcoming ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi,’ observes Dave McNary for Variety in a piece also published by the LAT.

“The company also faced pressure from several high-profile Hollywood figures, including Ava DuVernay, who directed ‘A Wrinkle in Time,’ which is to be released by Disney on March 9,” report Sydney Ember and Brooks Barnes for the New York Times. “‘Saluting the film journalists standing up for one another,’ Ms. DuVernay wrote on Twitter on Monday. ‘Standing with you.’”

Disney didn’t acknowledge feeling any pressure in its statement announcing its retraction of the ban. In fact, it seemed to suggest that it was effective. “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,” it said.

Politico’s Jack Shafer, for one, posits that Disney “won its fight with the press.” He suggests that its Trumpian attack on the media — despite the fact that it “employs thousands of journalists at its ABC News, ESPN, ESPN Magazine and TV news operations in seven of the nation’s top markets” — has left us back where we started. Namely, “… newspapers are once again free to give maximum free publicity to Disney products.”

The hed over the Washington Post’s story suggests a different climax, however: “Disney just got clobbered for bullying the Los Angeles Times.”

“We asked the Los Angeles Times if it offered any concessions in those chats,” writes Erik Wemple. 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,” Wemple writes.

Yes, but to riff on A.J. Liebling’s observation, it sometimes seems the freedom of the entertainment press belongs to those who generate the ink and bytes that sell the product.

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