A second major controversy in recent months is causing embarrassment at both ABC News and its parent company, Disney. In a recent commentary, we discussed how an internal conflict at ABC between the news and entertainment divisions resulted in the spiking of a story that examined evidence that it was missiles that actually brought down TWA Flight 800. The News division won, successfully arguing that they had already determined that the government version was correct, and it would be inappropriate for the entertainment division to present a show, especially one produced by controversial director, Oliver Stone, suggesting otherwise.
During that same period, another internal battle was playing itself out in the Disney – ABC News family. Shortly after David Westin, a corporate lawyer with little journalistic experience, took over as president of News from ABC icon, Roone Arledge, Westin authorized a story by veteran investigative reporter, Brian Ross. The point of the story was that security was very lax at Disney?s theme parks, and as a result a number of pedophiles and other sex criminals had been hired without proper background checks, and some were found to still be perpetrating their disgusting and criminal activity.
Brill?s Content Magazine, in its December/January issue, has run a major cover story looking into this upheaval. They found few of the 21 ABC news people they asked, willing to talk to them, but the public record is quite revealing nonetheless. For instance, Michael Eisner, Disney chairman, said in September, shortly before the story was pulled, that he (quote) “would prefer ABC not to cover Disney…ABC News knows that I would prefer them not to cover [Disney],” (unquote).
Over the several years since ABC had become part of Disney, the public had been treated to high-minded assurances from both sides of the fence that the News division would go aggressively where the facts led them?even if it meant embarrassment for the parent company. This story certainly did. One example cited was Jeffrey Bise, a puppet-vendor at Disney-MGM Studios theme park, who was accused of fondling a seven-year old British girl, who immediately told her nearby uncle, a British policeman. Despite efforts by park security to appease the family with souvenirs, the policeman persisted until local law enforcement arrived more than an hour later, and Bise immediately confessed to the crime.
According to Brill?s Content, the evidence of this sort of activity and the cover-up was very upsetting to veteran producer Rhonda Schwartz. She was under pressure from ABC News executives to downplay the problem at Disney parks, and portray it as a widespread problem for theme parks in general.
The Brian Ross story was largely based on the findings of a book for which ABC had signed an exclusive agreement with Regnery, a publisher of conservative books. ABC News senior VP, Richard Wald, had assured Regnery in a letter that ABC would not be influenced by its relationship with Disney. But in the end they caved in to Disney.