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Disney, Boycotts and the Hollywood Elite

by Joel Kotkin

July 24, 1997 | 8:00 pm

It's hard to feel sorry for the Walt Disney Company, a multibillion-dollar mouse-forged empire that seems to own a part of most children's hearts, including that of my own 2 1/2-year-old. Yet, in recent weeks, the venerable Burbank entertainment giant has been subjected to two major boycotts, one from the right-leaning Southern Baptists and the other from Latino media activists.

Why target Disney? To a large extent, notes the Anti-Defamation League's David Lehrer, it's simply a reflection of that company's success. "Disney is a big target because it's big and successful," he says. "It's an easy place to get attention if you go after it."

Yet there may be something more serious lurking behind these boycotts, Lehrer and others suspect -- a revival of the traditional concerns among various groups about "Jewish control" of the means of mass communications. Disney might be less exploitative and venal in its product line than the rest of Hollywood, but its leadership comprises some of the most visible and powerful Jewish figures in the industry (not the least of whom is Chairman Michael Eisner).

Although this linkage between Hollywood and Jews is rarely spoken of in press releases here, Lehrer says that it is once again a regular staple in the somewhat snide British press. More ominously, however, the Southern Baptist boycott comes from the very organization that last year openly advocated the mass conversion of Jews from their faith.

"Southern Baptists don't talk about Jews; they talk about the Walt Disney Company," says Rabbi James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee. "But in the back of their mind, they are thinking about Jews in the entertainment companies."

Rudin is no stranger to the religious right, having worked assiduously to improve relations between conservative Christians and mainstream Jewish organizations. He points out that the Southern Baptists have become increasingly hard-line in recent years on issues from homosexuality and abortion to the conversion of non-Christians. In the process, he adds, they have lost thousands of members and much of their grass-roots support. Many Southern Baptists, including those around Orlando, Disney's Florida hub, have distanced themselves from the boycott.

But Rudin suggests that the boycott does also reflect a legitimate complaint -- that Hollywood, and its largely Jewish leadership, is guilty of a kind of "elitism," particularly when it comes to the views felt in the "flyover zone" between the coasts. "It's a bigger issue about control of the culture by elites, and the Jews are part of it," Rudin says.

If this is true of Southern Baptists, much of the same can be said of the other boycotting group, the National Latino Media Coalition. Like other non-Jews in the entertainment media, many Latinos have felt excluded in their access to jobs, particularly in upper management at the studios. Many of them complain that the Hollywood elite sees only stereotypical roles for Latinos in the media, even though they live adjacent to the largest Hispanic community north of Mexico City.

"All we see are the stereotypes," says Alex Nogales, chairman of the coalition, which has won the support of such prominent figures as Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina. "We have been people selling oranges under the freeway, the nanny, the gardener, the gangbanger. That's what we seem to fit into."

Nogales and other Latinos in the media believe that many Jewish executives, including Eisner, have become socially isolated from the diverse and complex multiracial Los Angeles that exists around them. Certainly, this is not only a Disney problem; Steven Spielberg's wife, Kate Capshaw, once said that she wanted to move to New York to be in a "more diverse" city. One wonders whether she, and many other Hollywood types, ever sojourn east of La Cienega Boulevard.

This reflects a troubling tendency among Hollywood executives. Many of them may live in Los Angeles, the world's most diverse major city, but are not of it. Instead, they cling to ethnic mentalities nurtured in the predominantly black-and-white environments of 1960s Chicago, New York or Boston of their youths. If they seek to open themselves to other influences, it tends to be more oriented to African-Americans, who have made huge strides into at least creative parts of the business.

"A lot of Jews have forgotten what it's like to be a newcomer and have obstacles put in front of them," Nogales says. "They have become so isolated -- the Eisners and that type -- they are now excluding others, just as the Jewish immigrant was once excluded."

Although somewhat hyperbolic, Nogales' assertions cannot be dismissed as anti-Semitic. For one thing, Nogales is married to a Jew and sends his kids to a Jewish summer camp. His concerns should also be those of our community: After being perhaps too solicitous of non-Jews in the days of the Mayers and the Warners, the Jewish Hollywood elite and others must face the fact that there is a growing chasm between the entertainment industry and large parts of its audience, as can be seen in repeated congressional hearings and in the growing movement to control and label Hollywood content.

This chasm represents an important issue that Jews, both inside and outside of the entertainment industry, will need to address among themselves in years ahead.

Not that the boycotts of Disney will do much to advance that discussion within our community or with outsiders. Although they work as publicity stunts, the two boycotts will likely fail to keep Baptist or Latino parents from their appointed rounds, taking their children to Disneyland, Disneyworld or to see "Hercules" at Hollywood's El Capitan. What is needed instead is a more comprehensive dialogue between the entertainment moguls and their audience -- both in the "flyover zone" and here in the heart of increasingly Latino Los Angeles -- that addresses these complex issues in a less confrontational and more thoughtful way.


Joel Kotkin is the John M. Olin Fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy and author of "Tribes: How Race, Religion and Identity Determine Success in the New Global Economy."

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