One of the signs that you live in a banana republic is that the people disappear off the streets and are held indefinitely without trial (think Padilla). Another is that shadowy people who aren’t officially there and who everyone says are not subject to ordinary authority beat up detainees (think ‘other agency’ operatives and contractors in Iraq’s prisons). Another is that the nation’s Treasury is looted to give favors to cronies of the junta. Check.
But has it come to the point where even the big fish live in fear? Apparently so. Disney is refusing to let its Mirimax subsidiary distribute a polemical anti-Bush film by Michael Moore. I have no brief for Moore, but the New York Times reports that Mirimax at least believes that Disney’s actions are not justified by its contracts with it.
Be that as it may, the shocking part is not corporate political censorship — we lost that virginity long before the first Bush — but one alleged reason for Disney’s unwillingness to have anything to do with the film: a fear of retaliation from the ruling family!
Disney Forbidding Distribution of Film That Criticizes Bush: 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.
Ironically, the film is called “Fahrenheit 911”, presumably an allusion to Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, a book about censorship. Moore's project, apparently, is about the Bush-Saudi connection.
Update: Jack Balkin takes Disney at its word, and argues that this exposes a new danger of media concentration, which he dubs the soft censorship of Corporate Expectations:
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.
This is a real danger, although it's currently too late in the evening for me to figure out whether it's new, or a more elegant formulation of the old.