Mickey Malice — The Trump Years

Emboldened by Trump’s “Fake News” Campaign, Disney Blacklists L.A. Times. Media Fight Back with United Front. It Wasn’t Always Thus. A Backstory.

By Glenn Lovell

Hollywood’s most vengeful and manipulative studio?

Fanfare, please. Dun-daah-DUNN! Winner and still champion: Disney. Tweak the Mouse’s nose with negative reviews and/or news stories and you’ll likely regret it.

That’s what I found when I conducted a national film critics survey. Everyone from TKael2ime magazine’s Richard Schickel to Chicago Sun-Times’s Roger Ebert to The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael and Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern participated. A questionnaire went out from USC’s Annenberg School of Communication & Journalism, where I was on sabbatical from my job as film critic for the San Jose Mercury News.

The results — published in an arts journal in 1996 as “Caught in the Machinery: How Hollywood Subverts the Media” – caused what then passed for a media storm. CNN, Ebert and Columbia Journalism Review reported on the findings. Matt Drudge predicted the author “would not only never eat lunch in (Hollywood) again … if he’s not careful, he may find himself turning into the main course for some very hungry Dalmatians.”

More than 50 critics, entertainment editors and film writers weighed in. And when the numbers were crunched Disney outranked the competition as, in the eyes of critics and editors, the “most manipulative” studio, followed closely by Warner Bros., Miramax (then a subsidiary of Disney), and Universal. MGM and 20th Century Fox were adjudged the least manipulative.

The survey grew out of my personal experience. I was blacklisted by Disney in the spring of 1993, cut from screenings, junkets and interviews. Why? The studio had found the “tone” oSiskelf my coverage (reviews, columns, features) not to its liking. Asked for something more concrete, like factual errors or a star who had been misquoted, nothing was forthcoming. My boss, Robin Doussard, told Disney’s front office, “Lovell’s our critic. Want coverage? Deal with him.” (Note: When this happened, the Merc was a paper to be reckoned with, one of the 10 best papers in the country, according to Time magazine.)

In less than two weeks, Disney reversed itself. All’s forgiven, if not forgotten, I was told through an intermediary. Let’s move on.

Why this unpleasant amble down memory lane?  Because Disney recently went after the L.A. Times for what it called a “biased and inaccurate” investigative piece on the studio’s one-sided business dealings with the city of Anaheim, home to Disneyland. The ban from screenings and interviews lasted four days.

The big difference between what I and others (like Jami Bernard of the Daily News had experienced at the hands of Disney? Back then, when the Internet was in its infancy and print was still paramount, individual papers and their critics were left to turn in the wind. Colleagues were just pleased it wasn’t them. If a studio came down on a critic, there was probably good reason. “Lovell’s notoriously ‘difficult,’ always demanding the sun and moon. He probably got what he deserved, etc., etc.” (Then, as now, I wore the “Scarlet D” with pride.)

Twenty years later, the L.A. Times’s East Coast competition jumped to, lined up behind one of their number under fire. Deny our brethren access to “Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi” screenings, the New York Film Critics Circle and the other critics groups threatened, we’ll hit you where it hurts; we’ll stamp your films “ineligible” for year-end honors.

Little wonder Fantasyland hoisted a white flag.

Can we chalk up this once-unheard-of show of solidarity to Trump and the current administration’s war on the First Amendment? Has Disney, controlling under the best of circumstances, been emboldened to follow the president’s lead and dismiss coverage it dislikes as “fake news.” Sounds reasonable.

And has the media, likewise, been emboldened to join arms and present a united front? Those writing about entertainment certainly feel a new sense of urgency. Under assault politically, we are, across the board, more sensitive to outside manipulation. And whether the bully sports orange comb-over or mouse ears, he must be faced down. What was once tolerated as all part of the game, collateral damage, if you will, is now seen as intolerable.

Critic-author Glenn Lovell teaches film studies at De Anza College and other Bay Area schools.

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