Disney Stops LA Times Movie Preview Access, Citing Anaheim Reporting

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Sleeping Beauty's Castle at Disneyland in Anaheim.

Walt Disney Corp. officials, upset at a Los Angeles Times series about their business deals with the city of Anaheim and election spending for the city’s top decision-makers, have banned the newspaper from advance press screenings of its movies.

The move was announced Friday by the Times, which told readers it couldn’t review the new Disney film “Thor: Ragnarok” because Disney “declined to screen the movie for The Times’ critics.” In cutting off the access, the Times said, Disney cited “what it called unfair coverage of its business ties with the city of Anaheim.”

Additionally, Times reporter Glenn Whipp told the Washington Post that for three upcoming movies – the Thor film, Pixar’s “Coco,” and the next Star Wars film – “we’ve been told that we will not be able to review or have any access to the filmmakers or the people who made those movies.”

“Thor Ragnarok” brought in $427 million in box office revenue worldwide over the weekend.

The two-part Times series, published in late September, questioned if Disney was “paying its fair share” in Anaheim. Among the deals it highlighted was the Mickey & Friends parking structure, which the city built for $108 million. Disney pays the city $1 per year to lease the structure, while Disney likely makes tens of millions of dollars each year from the structure by charging at least $20 per day for each car, according to the paper.

Voice of OC was the first to report that during the last two Anaheim elections, in 2014 and 2016, Disney was by far the largest campaign spender in the city, through a complicated web of intermediary groups that make it difficult for voters to see where the money came from.

The Times series highlighted the over $1 million Disney spent in last year’s Anaheim City Council election, including ads attacking candidates who questioned the subsidy deals with Disney.

In response to news of the ban, Disney issued a statement Friday criticizing the Times’ series as biased and unfair.

“We regularly work with news organizations around the world that we don’t always agree with, but in this instance the L.A. Times showed a complete disregard for basic journalistic standards,” Disney officials wrote in their statement.

“Despite our sharing numerous indisputable facts with the reporter, several editors, and the publisher over many months, the Times moved forward with a biased and inaccurate series, wholly driven by a political agenda—so much so that the Orange County Register referred to the report as ‘a hit piece’ with a ‘seemingly predetermined narrative.’ We’ve had a long relationship with the L.A. Times, and we hope they will adhere to balanced reporting in the future.”

Disney didn’t explain what it considers inaccurate in the Times’ coverage. Disneyland’s communications director, Suzi Brown, didn’t return phone messages Friday seeking comment.

One of the reporters on the series said Disney’s objections to the Times didn’t challenge the accuracy of their reporting.

“Disney’s complaint was not one of accuracy,” staff writer Daniel Miller told the Washington Post.

“It did not ask for a single correction on this series,” he added. “I think it’s fair to say that Disney strenuously argued for how significant its positive impact on the city of Anaheim has been and we feel that that is reflected in the story.”

The Times’ chief spokeswoman, Hillary Manning, said the paper had nothing further to add beyond its Friday announcement of the ban.

VOC has publishing and advertising agreements with the LA Times and also rents office space from them.

Disney’s subsidy deals in Anaheim have raised questions over the years, and drawn scrutiny of the company’s large spending to elect City Council members, who are the ultimate decision-makers on the subsidy deals.

Disney spent about $1 million last year alone on Anaheim City Council races, with the money routed through 13 different groups, with names like Moving Orange County Forward and Orange County Freedom Fund, before being spent in the election.

Despite the spending, Disney lost the solid majority it long had on the City Council, by a margin of 72 votes.

A Washington Post column over the weekend said Disney’s blacklisting of the Times reflects poorly on Disney CEO Bob Iger, who also oversees major journalism outlets owned by Disney.

“Disney did not accuse the Times of anything illegal or unethical; it just didn’t like the newspaper’s math or its giving voice to city officials who contend that Anaheim has been too accommodating,” wrote columnist Callum Borchers.

“Acting as a watchdog, on guard for taxpayers, is a core function of news outlets such as the Times. Iger, of all people, ought to understand that. He doesn’t have to like being watched, but responding with vengeance is a bad look for someone in his position.”

Beyond Disneyland and its film studios, Disney owns the ABC broadcast network, including ABC News and KABC-TV in Los Angeles, whose ABC 7 Eyewitness News is the most-watched local TV news broadcast in the LA-Orange County region.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Suzi Brown, Disneyland’s communications director. Voice of OC regrets the error.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.