just asking questions

The Disney Debacle

Kara Swisher on the company’s crisis over Florida’s anti-LGBTQ+ law.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images

The first that anyone heard of Disney’s stance on Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law was anything but clear, with CEO Bob Chapek saying that “the biggest impact we can have in creating a more inclusive world is through the inspiring content we produce.” It was an uncharacteristically lukewarm statement from the company whose flagship theme park and other businesses contribute about $75 billion a year to the state’s economy. Enraged Disney employees walked out, and Chapek was forced to take a stronger stance by vowing to support the law’s repeal. In response, the right wing, led by Tucker Carlson, has been attacking Disney with QAnon-lite insinuations that the company supports sexually grooming children.

Few journalists understand Disney as well as Kara Swisher. The veteran tech and media reporter has chronicled the growth of the media giant, and its mega-acquisitions of Marvel, Pixar, and Fox, and interviewed its previous CEO, Bob Iger, often. Intelligencer talked with Swisher, who co-hosts New York Magazine’s Pivot podcast, about the mess for the House of Mouse.

What does Bob Chapek’s shifting response to the law tell you about him as a CEO?
I was surprised that someone who’s been within Disney for as long as he has didn’t steep himself in the culture to be a really inclusive and open company. He’s quite a bit more conservative than Iger, who would never have done this. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s never been on a big stage. He doesn’t understand the impact of Disney when they say something. So, to be kind, he’s a neophyte. To be unkind, he’s tone deaf: He doesn’t understand what Disney stands for and what the responsibility of the modern company is going forward, especially one that has been so open and inclusive. It’s not like they’re Hobby Lobby or Chick-fil-A. This is a company that really spent a lot of time burnishing its relationship with the gay and lesbian community and was trying really hard to change whether it was putting more women at the center of stories. So it seems really practical what he said but also really stupid.

Do you think that he ended up ceding some of the ground and paving the way for this bill to get passed?
Yeah. Disney runs Florida. It’s a critically important employer and an important political force, and everybody knows that. And it’s not necessarily always positive, right? They get into scrapes with locals all the time. They were trying to play it all ways. It was just dumb. It was unsophisticated. It was ill-thought-out.

Tucker Carlson just attacked Disney over the law, and the right wing is now trying to recast what Disney is.
Oh, they did that for years. Remember when Disney did the Gay Day? The right lost their ever-loving minds. They didn’t want to go along with everybody else. It was stupid. Maybe it’s a more partisan environment now than it was then and they have more levers to check them, but I don’t see people not going to Disney, right or left, because of whatever Tucker Carlson says.

For the past few years, Disney has been changing. It removed gendered pronouns from theme parks and committed to more underrepresented characters. But does this feel different to you?
No, this is just the right’s next at-bat with better tools for hating people. For those of us who are old enough, we know they did it before. They do it over and over again, and they’re not going to be happy until everybody is straight, white, Christian, and Tucker Carlson — so good luck with that.

What do you make of Ben Shapiro pledging $100 million in kids’ content?
Oh my God. I don’t think he has the skills necessary to make creative content, but good luck with that.

The line from people like Tucker Carlson and others is that Disney is captured, forced to be woke.
Oh, it’s ridiculous. And the same as they’ve ever been. Woke is caring about your fellow man. That’s a Disney brand.

Is it too late for Chapek to do anything to try to repeal the law?
The Florida legislature is quite conservative. And I don’t think they’re backing down. But they’re going to lose in court. That’s what’s going to happen. Ron DeSantis makes all these loud noises and then he loses in court every time. Chapek can pay for the court fees. They should not be funding these lawmakers, and they should support rivals to DeSantis.

Iger was just telling Chris Wallace about how this is about right and wrong. And Iger told you back in January that coming back was ridiculous. But do you think that this creates an opening for him to return?
No, I don’t think he wants to. It creates an opening for someone like Peter Rice, who is an executive there. Peter is really adept and spent years having to deal with Rupert Murdoch. But I don’t think Iger’s coming back. The most I think he would do is be chairman to help Peter Rice. But Chapek will probably survive this — it’s a really big deal to remove him. But he doesn’t have any more mistakes left. I suspect they’re gonna have some real issues around streaming economics. He’s promised to get to 250 million streaming customers, and that’s not going to happen. Unless they discount it to zero.

Really, economics and the stock price are his problem now. It’s not really his fault. They were secular trends started by Bob Iger — Bob One, as I like to call him. One of the things Bob One and I talked about was how everything’s shifting. He felt that the only big-enough company was Disney at this point among media companies. And he’s right. And it’s still not big enough. They’re facing real challenges from Apple and Amazon. You saw Apple just won the Oscar, and, you know, Amazon is doing really well. It’s really hard to compete in that regard. Chapek really has to focus on the importance of making that company well from a financial point of view. Unless that happens, he’s in much bigger trouble. And he cannot make one of these unforced errors again. He cannot.

How long do you give Chapek before he can get past this?
I don’t know — he’ll learn or he won’t. He’s got to be really nice to Lin-Manuel Miranda. He has to be nice to Marvel. They make wonderful entertainment, and they should understand it has a resonance. And if they do that onscreen, they should live that as a corporate citizen. They should appeal to everybody by being open to everybody. Maybe not white supremacists — they can stay home.

And there is also something of a corporate drama here, as Disney is something of a chimera because they bought Fox’s entertainment assets a few years ago.
That was important. The really good ones were the Pixar and Marvel ones. Everything Bob One has done is really smart. That’s the thing: You’ve got the cashmere prince followed by the rayon clod. Not rayon — I’m sure he dresses very nicely.

Is there really any room for Chapek to do a big dazzling deal like that though, especially with antitrust being such a concern in Washington, D.C.?
That would be harder. There’s not much for sale. They’re not buying a tech company. I don’t know what Disney would purchase. What would change the dial? Warner — but what do they want that for? So that’s the difficulty here: What do you do? You just make your really good products better and appealing to the broadest range of people. That requires being inclusive. It’s not pandering to gay people to be nice to them. It’s just being nice to everybody. That’s their image. That’s what got hit here. Being nice to everyone is their thing — including Tucker Carlson. That’s their brand: the happiest place on Earth. And also Marvel.

Wall Street has been bullish on Disney because of the attendance at the parks.
One of the great things about Disney is they have so many businesses. The entertainment business, the parks business, cruises. They just need to keep making great content like Encanto, and there are like 19 Marvel movies coming out next year or something like that. That means being inclusive to everyone — and I mean, everyone, from the Midwest to Evangelicals, to gays, to very liberal people, to conservative people. It is a place that people like to go and have fun, and it’s a place that people want to go to see great movies about superheroes, with beautiful animation from Pixar and Disney, and get to see the work of really wonderful artists like Lin-Manuel Miranda.

You pulled your Pivot conference from Florida, right?
Yes, I did.

For a company like Disney, which can’t just pull out, is Florida going to just continue being a headache for them?
Under Ron DeSantis, yes. It doesn’t mean it’s always going to be under DeSantis, but yes. While he’s running for president, yes. And so I think it’s going to be a problem for them. I can leave Florida.

Some Florida lawmakers are trying to revoke some of Disney’s partial ability to govern itself, which it’s done since 1967. Do you think Florida would really pick that fight?
That is the stupidest thing. If they really hate gay people and trans people that much, they can do it. That they will regret. You know, I’m a capitalist. I’m voting with my money. Even if it’s a small amount of money, a couple million or whatever, it’s my money. I don’t want to spend it there. Just like Anita Bryant selling Florida orange juice, I just don’t want to drink that crap, if they’re gonna have a spokesperson like that. So it’s my choice. It’s not “woke.” I just don’t want to do it. It’s called capitalism — you should try it sometime.

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