by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
May 19, 2004
MICHAEL MOORE TURNS THE TABLES
LOS ANGELES -- It's hard to say which was more striking, the Disney hypocrisy or Michael Moore's shameless publicity mongering. Either way, its a laugh riot all the way to Cannes.
Moore, Academy Award winning director of "Bowling for Columbine," has been working on his latest film, "Fahrenheit 9/11," for the past year. Along the way, he has been financed by Disney subsidiary Miramax to the tune of $6 million.
The film, as yet unreleased, is a treatment of the alleged ties between the Bush and Saud families. It includes the accusation that Saudi Arabian nationals including Bin Laden family members were allowed by the Bush administration to fly out of the United States shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks. If this sounds like the allegations in Craig Unger's book House of Bush, House of Saud, rest assured that Unger is interviewed in the film. In addition, material critical of the current American occupation of Iraq is presented.
A couple of weeks ago, Michael Moore complained publicly that Miramax, under orders from parent Disney, was now refusing to distribute the film. Moore accused Disney of trying to censor him. A collection of Moore's statements are available on his Website, www.michaelmoore.com.
It was further alleged by a Moore publicist that the Disney action was based on corporate fear that Gov. Jeb Bush would retaliate against Disney by revoking tax breaks that the Disney Corp. enjoys in the state of Florida, where its Walt Disney World owns tens of thiousands of acres near Orlando, and even its own small town. Undoubtedly, part of the lure that brought Disney to Orlando was a series of handsome tax breaks. They are available to corporations on a case-by-case basis, but they are probably impossible to revoke many years after the fact.
The New York Times ran with the story. The Times followed up with an editorial (available on Moore's Website) calling Disney Corp. "craven."
Within days, the story had gone 'round the world. A Google search turns up discussions and protests in several languages on numerous European Websites.
The Disney Corporation responded. For one thing, they pointed out, Disney had informed Michael Moore over a year ago that it would not distribute the film. Moore responded back that yes, they had told him that, but for some reason they kept giving him the money he needed to keep making the film. He suggests, in essence, that he was under the impression that eventually things would get worked out.
There was more, though. One Disney executive was quoted by the New York Times, "It's not in the interest of any major corporation to be dragged into a highly charged partisan political battle." CEO Michael Eisner stated, "We informed both the agency that represented the film and all of our companies that we just didn't want to be in the middle of a politically-oriented film during an election year."
What a joy, having a major American corporation dedicating itself to wholesome entertainment ventures, all the while keeping its hands unsoiled by the rough play of political partisanship.
Perhaps Michael Eisner was suffering a momentary episode of amnesia as he forgot what his corporation actually does in the political realm.
Perhaps he forgot about Disney-owned talk-radio station KABC (AM790) in his own backyard, Los Angeles. Just to help refresh his memory, here are the hosts of KABC shows in the weekday 9am to 9pm slots: Bill O'Reilly, Al Rantel, Paul Harvey, Sean Hannity and Larry Elder.
Not counting Paul Harvey and his son, who have been on the radio since shortly after the last Ice Age (well, 1933, actually), every host is a hard-core right winger who makes a living bashing liberalism and defending the current administration. O'Reilly and Hannity are successful enough to have achieved national attention (or notoriety, depending on your particular views) as conservative spokesmen. Al Rantel is sort of a less talented Hannity on the local level. Larry Elder is a one-time Libertarian who turned Republican and shills incessantly for the Bush administration.
Or perhaps we might look at Disney's flagship station WABC in New York City. WABC seems to allow a few not-so-ideological hosts in the morning, but from noon to 10pm it's a solid roster liberal-bashing, Bush-supporting right wingers: Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity cover noon to 6pm, followed by Mark Levin and Laura Ingraham. Levin and Ingraham are described on the WABC.com web site as, respectively, "one of America's preeminent conservative commentators," and "a smart, attractive, conservative woman" whose show "drives the liberals nuts."
Michael Eisner's protestations of politics-free purity rings hollow when you consider the true nature of the Disney radio holdings. Just taking KABC and WABC alone, we found close to 100 hours of hard-core, right-wing propagandizing each week.
Perhaps Disney Corporation didn't want to "be in the middle of a politically-oriented film during an election year," but if so, radio can surely be said to be taking up the slack.
In any event, faced with worldwide protest over its $6 million investment, Disney managed to find a polite way out. It has sold its interest in Fahrenheit 9/11 to Miramax executives Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who will be free to find a distributor for the film. Moore went to the Cannes film festival with "Fahrenheit 9/11."
A word about the media response to the Moore-Disney exchange, and then a few words about Moore's amazing feat:
Moore's argument about Jeb Bush remains unexplained, unproved and, arguably, unlikely. Disney's political power in Florida has been explored by eminent writers such as Carl Hiassen (Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World). It is more likely that Disney could retaliate against Jeb Bush than the reverse.
Still, the story of a retaliatory Jeb Bush became glued to the more prosaic Hollywood-infighting story. Not many analysts treated the Jeb Bush assertion critically.
One who did was Martin Grove of the Hollywood Reporter, who labeled the whole episode the "Passion of Michael." Grove points out, "It wasn't until Thursday that the media started quoting a spokeswoman for Gov. Bush as saying, "There are Florida statutes that outline the provisions for companies to be eligible for tax incentives. That's what we follow. The governor continues to encourage companies to move to the state of Florida." Disney, she added, "has been a good corporate partner."
Another reporter who saw through the bunk was Patrick Goldstein of the Los Angeles Times, who summarized the whole affair nicely:
Let's be clear: This is a world-class publicity stunt. Even Moore has acknowledged that he knew a year ago Eisner was angry with Miramax for buying the film and would never distribute it. Moore and Weinstein have planned for ages to sell the film at Cannes but conveniently waited to leak the story till just before the festival began. That said, Eisner's contention that Disney is too respectful of its family reputation to ever "take sides" is pretty laughable.
For some reason, numerous media outlets, and Websites in particular, failed to see this.
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a liberal organization that tries to respond to what it sees as conservative bias and misstatement, went whole hog in the other direction, arguing that the retaliatory Florida governor scenario best fits the facts. Others simply repeated the story.
All in all, it was a productive couple of weeks. Michael Moore seems to be getting his film distributed, and lots more people will at least get to hear about the Bush-Saudi allegations.
As to the techniques Moore used in this little game, it is fair to say that the arguments about Florida government were entertaining, but not exactly fair.
David Brock, the man who used to do dirty tricks for the right wing but has since repented of his sins, is the author of a book (about to be released) called "The Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How it Corrupts Democracy." Previews and excerpts (principally in Salon.com) have explained the main idea, which can be described something like this: A Republican Party representative will spin a story about a leading Democrat, which will get picked up by Drudge, which will be picked up by the Washington Times, and pretty soon every other news outlet is reporting on the allegation without having to check out the truth or falsehood of the story. Do this twice a week, and you go a long way towards keeping the opposition on the defensive.
In a way, Michael Moore has done something similar on the other side. He has taken a mundane argument over business interests and elevated it into political theater. He has taken the idea of the right-wing noise machine and turned it around to create a noise of his own, and in so doing getting his film a distributor and creating trouble for the Bush electoral machine in Florida.
Reporters and editors should take note of how easy it is to get an unproved, unlikely story started in circulation, particularly when each media outlet that spreads the story takes it on faith rather than doing a little fact-checking and logical analysis.