Balkinization  

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

JB

The Soft Censorship of Corporate Expectations

The New York Times reports that the Walt Disney Company is preventing its Mirimax division from distributing a new Michael Moore documentary that criticizes President Bush's actions both before 9/11 and explores Bush's connections to prominent Saudis:

Disney, which bought Miramax more than a decade ago, has a contractual agreement with the Miramax principals, Bob and Harvey Weinstein, allowing it to prevent the company from distributing films under certain circumstances, like an excessive budget or an NC-17 rating.

Here's the key quote:
Disney came under heavy criticism from conservatives last May after the disclosure that Miramax had agreed to finance the film when Icon Productions, Mel Gibson's studio, backed out.

Mr. Moore's agent, Ari Emanuel, said that Michael D. Eisner, Disney's chief executive, asked him last spring to pull out of the deal with Miramax. Mr. Emanuel said Mr. Eisner expressed concern that it would endanger tax breaks Disney receives for its theme park, hotels and other ventures in Florida, where Mr. Bush's brother, Jeb, is governor.

"Michael Eisner asked me not to sell this movie to Harvey Weinstein; that doesn't mean I listened to him," Mr. Emanuel said. "He definitely indicated there were tax incentives he was getting for the Disney corporation and that's why he didn't want me to sell it to Miramax. He didn't want a Disney company involved."

Disney executives deny that accusation, though they said their displeasure over the deal was made clear to Miramax and Mr. Emanuel.

A senior Disney executive elaborated that the company has the right to quash Miramax's distribution of films if it deems their distribution to be against the interests of the company. Mr. Moore's film, the executive said, is deemed to be against Disney's interests not because of the company's business dealings with the government but because Disney caters to families of all political stripes and believes Mr. Moore's film could alienate many.

"It's not in the interest of any major corporation to be dragged into a highly charged partisan political battle," this executive said. (italics added).


This is the soft censorship of corporate expectations. The issue is not so much the film's politics but the fact that it has a politics that might either offend advertisers or government officials who, in turn, can decide to dry up the various spigots of wealth that advertisers and governments provide to very large media companies. All other things being equal, media corporations like their political messages bland and innocuous, and not clearly directed against particular politicians that might hurt them. This feature is perfectly consistent with media products having ideological slants. The issue is not whether they have a slant-- they very often do-- but whether they have the sort of slant that will get them into trouble and cost them profits.

The soft censorship of corporate expectations suggests a generally unremarked problem with media concentration: It is often argued that media concentration can actually help foster diversity, because a monopolist will have an economic incentive to produce a diverse menu of media goods in order to capture an increasingly large audience share. But this reasoning neglects the fact that as media become vertically and horizontally integrated, they may become held responsible by politicians and advertisers for *everything* that they do. That leads them, all other things being equal, to avoid the kinds of attacks and controversies that will get them in hot water with politicians. Thus, although media concentration may produce products that are increasingly diverse from one perspective, they may be increasingly shallow from another. Conversely, in a world in which there are a large number of different players, the chances become higher than one of them is willing to risk the wrath of the powers that be.




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