October 21, 1999
Disney’s Dangerous Course
Just last month, Walt Disney World appeared to be right in the path of a bona fide hurricane. Hurricane Floyd was headed for Florida's eastern coast, and Walt Disney World was forced to close its doors for the first time in its 28-year history. But Mickey's luck held out. Floyd veered north, and Walt Disney World was saved from potential devastation.
But the Walt Disney Company has now found itself right in the eye of a political storm that is stalled smack dab over Orlando. How Disney has chosen to weather this storm may tip the balance of power between political pressure groups and the entire entertainment industry for years to come.
First, the back story: In 1998, Disney invited 24 nations to participate in a millennium celebration at its Orlando-based Epcot Center. Israel was invited to join in this hoopla that celebrated cultural diversity. Israel contributed $1.8 million to the reported $8 million project. In the last several weeks, the media has been reporting that Jerusalem would be depicted in Israel's exhibit as the capital of the Jewish state. Clearly, Disney was not prepared for the controversy that these stories would bring.
The status of Jerusalem is a highly sensitive issue between three of the world's major religions -- Judaism, Islam and Christianity. In fact, until 1967, the city was divided between Israelis and Arabs. During the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel captured Jerusalem's eastern portion and declared the entire city to be its eternal, undivided capital. Palestinians have insisted that East Jerusalem be the capital of any future Palestinian state.
Once the Arab world got wind that the exhibit was intended to portray Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, many of its leaders called for a boycott of the entire Walt Disney Company. Unlike other entertainment conglomerates, Disney has been the frequent target of boycotts from several interest groups, including the American Family Association, the Southern Baptist Convention, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the National Federation for the Blind and the Catholic League. In fact, the Arab-American community has protested or boycotted Disney in the past, objecting to the depiction of Arab characters in the Disney films "Aladdin," "Kazaam" and "Father of the Bride 2." In most of these instances, Disney has tried to weather these storms and not buckle to the pressure of these interest groups, by issuing brief statements and waiting for the headlines to pass.
Hoping to dodge Hurricane Jerusalem, Disney has taken a different course. Instead of laying low, the company actually ceded to the demands of the Arab community. Bill Warren, a Disney spokesman, recently announced that while Epcot would proceed with the Israeli pavilion, "the exhibit contains no reference to Jerusalem as the capital." In the final analysis, this decision may prove to torment Disney and other entertainment conglomerates for years to come.
In response to the "Aladdin" flap, Disney altered two lines in a single song at the behest of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination League. Playing on negative stereotypes of any group is wrong, but making these changes did not touch on the political agenda of the Arab community. On the other hand, when Disney officials declared that the Israeli exhibit would not refer to Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state, they inserted the Happy Kingdom into the debate over the fragile Israeli/Arab peace process.
Most distressing, however, is a statement issued by the president of the Walt Disney World Resort upon the Oct. 1 opening of the exhibit. When Al Weiss was asked what changes were made to appease Arab detractors, he responded: "The process we go through to develop entertainment, exhibits, attractions and shows is a process we hold near and dear to our hearts. It is a proprietary process that we go through, so I'm not going to comment on anything as it relates to that competitive advantage."
This refusal to answer demonstrates that Disney could have adopted their standard strategy -- issue a brief statement and wait for the headlines to pass -- without declaring under threat of boycott that they would cave to the demands of a political interest group.
Now that a leader in the Hollywood community has acquiesced to political pressure, other interest groups may feel emboldened and take Disney's action as their cue to pounce. These pressure groups will surely try and manipulate other studios' creative decisions by waging an all-out media assault against the studio they subjectively believe has offended their sensibilities.
For example, the Parents Television Council recently targeted Fox for broadcasting what it deemed to be the least family-friendly programming during the 8 to 9 p.m. "family hour." Taking solace from Disney's recent inability to withstand political heat, this interest group may now intensify its efforts -- hoping that Fox will similarly buckle under political pressure.
Whether you support or reject any one interest group's view of the world, exerting political pressure on the creative community will only hobble those gifted with the ability to make us laugh and cry with the written and spoken word.
While Disney may believe that it has dodged Hurricane Jerusalem, in return, it may have spawned other hurricanes surely to make landfall on the Hollywood coast in seasons to come.
Brad Pomerance is the entertainment and media correspondent for Los Angeles- area National Public Radio affiliate KPCC-89.3 FM. The views expressed in this article are solely the author's. His column, "The Industry," will appear in this space bimonthly.