When ‘L.A. Times’ Journalists Faced A Media Blackout, Their Peers Stood Up — And Saw Change

"It’s a dangerous precedent ..."

Mickey Mouse can certainly hold a grudge — and a problematic one, at that. The internet has been abuzz ever since the Los Angeles Times revealed on Friday that Disney had issued a temporary blackout on the newspaper due to coverage the company didn't like. This move — which has since been rescinded — was harmful to journalistic rights (which are covered in the First Amendment) and responsibilities but, ultimately, showed that when people stand together using their voices, change can happen.



This all started with a piece the L.A. Times writer Daniel Miller wrote back in September titled "Is Disney paying its share in Anaheim?" which examined the company's ties to the city where Disneyland is based. There were a few follow-ups and then nothing until the newspaper revealed it would be covering Disney releases when they are made available to the general public for the time being because its staff had been denied entry to a Thor: Ragnarok screening (and theoretically for future ones, such as Coco and Star Wars: The Last Jedi).

As a result, individual journalists and various publications came to the defense of the L.A. Times and announced boycotts of preview screenings and/or would curb current coverage until the company changes its stance. In fact, four critics groups — Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Boston Society of Film Critics, and the National Society of Film Critics — denounced this and said they wouldn't allow any Walt Disney movies to be considered for year-end awards until the blackout has been ended publicly. (The Hollywood Reporter's Scott Feinberg noted that more groups could join and this could affect the Oscars.) These four critics groups called what Disney did "antithetical to the principles of a free press and set a dangerous precedent in a time of already heightened hostility toward journalists."

"It is admittedly extraordinary for a critics' group, let alone four critics' groups, to take any action that might penalize film artists for decisions beyond their control," a joint statement read, per a press release. "But Disney brought forth this action when it chose to punish The Times' journalists rather than express its disagreement with a business story via ongoing public discussion. Disney's response should gravely concern all who believe in the importance of a free press, artists included."

Not only did those in the journalism world condemn Disney in this situation, but some dissent came from semi-within its ranks. Ava DuVernay, who is directing A Wrinkle in Time for Disney (due out in March 2018), voiced support for the L.A. Times and promised to continue "standing with" its staff.

On the TV side of things, the Television Critics Association added its thoughts, with its president saying they understood "that screeners and coverage opportunities are a privilege and not a right," but they "condemn any circumstance in which a company takes punitive action against journalists for doing their jobs."

The problem here is that Disney didn't ask for corrections or handle this with the L.A. Times directly, instead jumping the gun and issuing a blackout because it didn't like coverage. In a statement, Disney called the L.A. Times' coverage a "complete disregard for basic journalistic standards" noting that this happened "despite [their] sharing numerous indisputable facts with the reporter, several editors, and the publisher over many months," but that the newspaper "moved forward with a biased and inaccurate series, wholly driven by a political agenda." 

Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune called the act "craven and petty" as well as a "hostile to the practice, provocation, and purpose of journalism — cultural, investigative, or otherwise." Similarly, A.A. Dowd of The A.V. Club wrote: "It's a dangerous precedent that Disney is setting: Write an unfavorable story — one that Disney hasn't disputed factually, even — and it will blacklist your publication, punishing independent journalism by using its massive corporate influence." Even the New York Times joined in, noting "a powerful company punishing a news organization for a story they do not like is meant to have a chilling effect."

We're not saying Disney didn't have a point here or that the stories from the L.A. Times aren't totally accurate and fair — that's not the point. The problem here is how the Mickey Mouse company retaliated and essentially tried to force the L.A. Times to follow the narrative it wanted to be out in the world. A free press is meant to be exactly that — a press able to carry out its duties without fear of retaliation.

Luckily, though, Disney lifted its blackout on the L.A. Times, per the New York Times, issuing a statement that "productive conversations with the newly installed leadership ... regarding our specific concerns." Let it be shown that, in addition to whatever happened behind closed doors, the journalism community stood together and, as a result, saw change happen.

Cover image via Juli Hansen / Shutterstock.com

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