Disney's Partisan Kingdom

by Amie Sugarman | 5/10/04 5:00am

Imagine a world in which the President of the United States pushes us to war with a country over invented claims of weapons of mass destruction and fabricated assertions of ties to terrorism. Imagine a world in which terrorists crash airplanes into the Twin Towers, and then the White House uses this tragedy as an excuse to usurp the civil liberties of Americans. Imagine a world in which no one can publicly criticize the President of the United States, including through the venue of film.

This "imaginary" world is actually not so far from reality. In fact, this is reality.

Last week, Disney, a major media giant, announced that it is blocking its Miramax division from distributing Michael Moore's newest documentary, which is highly critical of the Bush administration. Disney's explanation of the censorship is that Moore's film is "overtly partisan" against the Bush administration.

How can one of the largest media corporations in our country, Disney, justify its refusal to distribute a film because it takes a political stance? Disney's qualm with the picture is not that it is partisan, but rather that it is partisan on the wrong side of the fence.

In America, we stand on the values of the civil liberties ensured to citizens in the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment guarantees the freedoms of speech and press to all Americans. In fact, this Amendment was meant to ensure that Americans would criticize the government, because how else can the government meet the constantly changing needs of society if it hears no clear voice that condemns its inadequacies? Democracies are based on the notion that criticism of the government and its policies is necessary in order to spur change as well as enable people to express their opinions. If dissent were not allowed and encouraged, then problems would never be uncovered. Although Disney is not legally bound to provide a forum in which to criticize the government, its size and scope endows it with a civic responsibility to distribute all viewpoints, even those with which its senior officials may disagree.

According to Moore's agent, Ari Emanuel, Disney's motivations run deeper than just a love for censorship of liberal viewpoints. In fact, the additional impetus for Disney's actions is one of the most central forces in a capitalist democracy: money. That's right, Emanuel was told by Disney's chief executive, Michael D. Eisner, that he feared Moore's film would anger President Bush's brother, Jeb, who is the Governor of Florida. Since a large portion of Disney's profits come from its theme parks and hotels located in Florida (i.e. Disney World -- "The Happiest Place on Earth"), Eisner worried that the company's tax breaks in Florida would be revoked if Jeb Bush were incensed enough by Moore's film.

So basically, Disney is preventing its subsidiary from distributing a film because it fears it could cause a Bush family crisis that could possibly lose them their special tax loopholes. I am going to ignore the financial illogic present here, since the money the film would gross (Moore's films tend to perform quite well at the box office) would seriously alleviate and possibly outweigh any potential indirect tax break losses. The far more important issue here is that the media in this country is supposed to provide a forum in which people can openly express their opinions, no matter on which side of the ideological spectrum they reside. For Disney, a media giant, to forgo its duties to enable free speech by capitulating to the right wing is absolutely absurd. Disney completely ignored the principles of our nation that encourage open dialogue and criticism, all for a few tax incentives, which would not even necessarily be revoked if Disney chose to allow Miramax to distribute Moore's film.

As a powerful media source in our country, Disney has an obligation to allow films from throughout the political spectrum, including those that are critical of the government, to be distributed to the public. What kind of example is this media giant setting by only permitting non-controversial fluff to be distributed to the public? Disney needs to realize that Moore's documentary will in fact make money and will garner more respect for Disney as a purveyor of media offering unique insight into the problems facing the nation.