“I’m not trying to sell you a conspiracy theory. I doubt that (former Disney CEO) Michael Eisner (or Rupert Murdoch or Ted Turner) decides what specific items will be aired on an evening news broadcast. Still, there is a convergence. Big money interests own the media. The media plays an enormous role in shaping our view of reality.” Bernie Sanders, 1997 Autobiography
When Gannett acquired the Detroit News in 1985 the newspaper chain promptly installed a longtime corporate loyalist as editor whom we shall call Empty Suit. In those days, print journalists humbly viewed themselves as ink-stained wretches and sartorial fastidiousness wasn’t part of the job description. Empty brought some style to the newsroom.
Empty was partial to wearing suspenders and bold colored Oxford shirts. On the rare occasions when he emerged from his office, Empty’s sleeves were rolled up, his tie thrust over his shoulder, and his glasses perched on his head. Within weeks, editors and reporters who never before visited a Brooks Brothers were shamelessly parading through the newsroom wearing colored Oxford shirts with suspenders, their sleeves rolled up, their ties thrust over their shoulders, and their glasses on their heads.
Journalists fashion themselves as fearless protectors of “truth, justice, and the American way,” and they are admirably relentless when it comes to taking on political leaders and advocating the PC-correct causes they passionately believe in. But when it comes to speaking out against institutional wrongdoing within their own organizations or challenging the leadership that oversees them, journalists too often become meek little lambs. Toadyism is quite rampant in the media industry, and the most obsequious often are tapped for the top editorial jobs.
A case in point is ABC News where the network’s journalists have remained publicly silent about the suspension and demotion of veteran award-winning correspondent David Wright for speaking truth to power, albeit unintentionally. Unaware that he was secretly being filmed by an advocacy group seeking to expose liberal bias at major news organizations, Wright confessed that he was a “socialist” who favored universal health care, reigning in corporations, and narrowing the wealth gap. He was also critical of ABC News’s coverage of President Trump: “We don’t hold him to account. We also don’t give him credit for what things he does do.”
Those comments aren’t likely the ones that got Wright into hot water with The Walt Disney Company, the entertainment conglomerate that owns ABC. Rather, it was these:
“It’s like there’s no upside in — or our bosses don’t see an upside — in doing the job we’re supposed to do, which is to speak truth to power and hold people to account,” he said, confessing he feels badly because “the truth suffers” and “voters are poorly informed.”
And here’s the fatal blow.
“Now you can’t watch ‘Good Morning America’ without there being a Disney princess or a Marvel Avenger appearing,” Wright said. “It’s all self-promotional.”
After the Wright video garnered considerable media publicity, ABC News issued this unattributed statement:
“Any action that damages our reputation for fairness and impartiality or gives the appearance of compromising it harms ABC News and the individuals involved. David Wright has been suspended and to avoid any possible appearance of bias he will be reassigned away from political coverage when he returns.”
A little background on David Wright, one of ABC’s most accomplished journalists. The 56-year-old correspondent joined the Disney network nearly 20 years ago; he covered the White House and was the lead political reporter on “Nightline” during the 2016 presidential campaign. He’s handled a slew of overseas assignments, sharing an Emmy Award for his Iraq reporting and a Peabody Award for reporting in Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Despite his distinguished career, none of the hire ups at ABC News took public ownership of the statement announcing Wright’s demotion. (This is what I mean about corporate toadies getting top journalism jobs.)
It’s a joke for ABC News to argue that it’s concerned about the appearance of impartiality. The network’s chief correspondent is George Stephanopoulos, Bill Clinton’s former communications director and press secretary. During the last presidential election, it was revealed that Stephanopoulos donated $75,000 to the Clinton Foundation. He subsequently was forced to withdraw as a moderator of a presidential debate.
Disney’s synergistic use of ABC News to promote its business is well known. When Disney opened its theme park in Shanghai, Good Morning America co-host Robin Roberts broadcast live from the site. In a May 4, 2018 nightly newscast, ABC devoted six times more coverage to an upcoming Disney Star Wars movie than it did to a favorable jobs report revealing the lowest unemployment levels in nearly a decade.
Last December, GMA devoted five minutes to promote a glossy book issued by Disney. Here’s what Roberts had to say: “The idea for this book actually came from the man himself, right to the top, Bob Iger, our chairman and CEO of Walt Disney Company. One Day at Disney is out this morning and I know everybody in the piece said it, but we do have the best jobs at Disney.” (Disney theme park employees living in their cars because they reportedly don’t earn a living wage would debate Roberts’s claim.)
The organization that released the Wright video last year released a video of Amy Robach, co-host of the ABC News show 20/20, saying she had details years ago about Jeffrey Epstein’s proclivities, including his connections to Prince Andrew and former President Bill Clinton, but claimed ABC News killed the story because of pressure from Buckingham Palace. ABC News president James Goldston reportedly dined with members of the Royal Family.
“We had everything,” Robach said on the video. “I tried for three years to get it on, to no avail. And now it’s all coming out and it’s like these new revelations and I freaking had all of it. I’m so pissed right now. Every day I get more and more pissed ‘cause I’m just like oh my god. What we had was unreal.” Tellingly, Robach was more concerned about getting scooped than she was about the additional victims that possibly were preyed on because the story never aired.
After the video was released, Robach said ABC News never intentionally killed her scoop and called the video, “a private moment of frustration.”
Mmm. Wright’s comments also were a private moment of frustration, yet he was suspended and demoted while ABC News let Robach off scot-free. Wright’s unpardonable sin was to admit that he was genuinely bothered by Disney’s interference in ABC News’s operations. To his credit, Wright didn’t do a Robach and say his comments about ABC News were mistaken.
The only journalists with the guts to publicly protest Wright’s treatment are former Nightline anchor Ted Koppel and his former executive producer Tom Bettag, both of whom no longer work at ABC News. Working journalists know that publicly criticizing Disney has repercussions.
Despite controlling a news network, Disney isn’t a big believer in freedom of the press and will seek to crush any publication or person that reports negatively about it. After the Los Angeles Times reported about Disney’s heavy-handed dealings with the city of Anaheim, the company banned the publication from press screenings of its movies.
ABC News said it removed Wright from political reporting because it wanted to avoid the appearance of bias. I’d trust Wright’s reporting far more than any other journalist working at the Mickey Mouse network. He’s honest with himself about the oppressive company he works for.